Unpaid internships are standard practice at the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in political campaigns. Should they be banned for private-sector employers? I answer “no” in a new U.S. News “Debate Club” also featuring a contribution by Dan Rothschild of R Street Institute as well as contributions by three advocates of a ban. Excerpt of mine:
With eyes wide open, students with many options have long sought out voluntary unpaid internships because they’re an arrangement that can rationally benefit both sides.
In an Auburn University working paper last month (via), four economists reported on a study that found internship experience was associated with a 14 percent increase in the rate at which prospective employers request interviews of job seekers. As a predictor of the rate of callbacks, an internship on the resume actually worked much better than a business degree itself.
Yet class-action lawyers and labor activists now attack internships as — in the trendy, elastic new term — “wage theft.” These same lawyers and activists go to court demanding millions of dollars retrospectively over arrangements both sides understood perfectly well at the time to be unpaid — and think shakedowns like these should *not* be called “theft.” …
In modern America, it’s never more than a short jump from “this set-up isn’t for everyone” to “let’s ban it.”
I go on to discuss the sclerosis of the European job market, especially when it comes to youth employment, and observe that the “campaign against internships is part of a wider campaign against low-pay work options in general — call it a campaign to get rid of any stepping stones in the stream that aren’t sturdy enough to support a whole family.” And I note the curious contrast with higher education pointed out by my colleague Andrew Coulson: “Paying to Learn Nothing = Legal. Paying Nothing to Learn = Illegal.” Earlier coverage here. And adapted with additional material into a longer Cato version here.