I’ve been grappling a lot with this question lately, because there’s been some talk in the press about the exploitative nature of internships, and how they are used as a substitute for hiring real employees. I’m also of the mind that the internship system favors those who can afford to work for free – and thereby makes it much more difficult for students from less privileged backgrounds to move ahead. That said, while in school I was able to intern at a number of institutions, and the exposure was instrumental in shaping the archivist I have become. I worked with a variety of collections, and from each I learned how to meet the specific needs of the materials, as well as determine the kinds of collections I would like to work with in the future. Not to mention that my current job started as an internship – albeit a paid one.
No company wants to appear immoral, which I do understand is a little different than a company that acts morally. A recent piece in the Atlantic argues that even if the relationship between organization and intern is mutually beneficial, it doesn’t mean it should be legal. The example they give to demonstrate this point is of a 17 year-old requesting a shot of vodka from a bartender in exchange for money. Although both parties “benefit” from the transaction, we as a society have decided that this should be illegal based on the larger consequences that come with this kind of action. I ask you, is an internship really akin to underage drinking? Does a 17 year-old benefit from a vodka shot, or are they merely gratified?
When I was interning I intentionally chose organizations that offered the kinds of experiences I knew I would need once I entered the workforce. Some have said that the work given to interns should not overlap with the work of regular employees. The fact that my tasks overlapped with the paid professionals I was working with was all the better in my opinion. What good is working for free if all you are asked to do is fetch coffee and change the toner? I think that rather than focusing on the freeness of internships more attention needs to be paid to the kind of work one is offered in exchange for their free labor.
Of course, this does little to close the gap between privileged students, and those that are less so. Clearly we do need some sort of regulation that ensures companies that have the means to pay their interns do just that. Still, in the job challenged post 2008 world there are extremely good arguments for being and bringing on an intern. I can say from personal experience that for the former it offers so much more than a hangover the next day.