Crucial Unpaid Internships Increasingly Separate the Haves From the Have-Nots

By JENNIFER 8. LEE

Published: NYT, August 10, 2004

WASHINGTON, Aug. 9 – Susan Lim, a 20-year-old Georgetown University student, is working 89 hours a week this summer: two part-time jobs and an unpaid internship offered through the Public Policy and International Affairs Program.

Her schedule – working for money as a clerical assistant and a summer school resident adviser and without pay as a researcher at the public policy program – is a sharp contrast to that of her Georgetown classmates. Many of them have parents who support them through unpaid summer internships, or they have qualified for paid internships because of experience as unpaid interns during high school.

“I have to do the same things they do plus more to get to the same place,” said Ms. Lim, whose mother and father each work two jobs, including running a Laundromat, to support a household of 14 people. But Ms. Lim says she has no choice on performing her summer juggling act, which includes taking a class at Georgetown, where she is studying at the School of Foreign Service. She believes she needs an internship to be competitive with her peers. “If you go and apply for a job and/or apply for graduate school and all you have are grades, the next person has the same grades or better and has done other things,” she said.

The focus on internships as a tool for professional success has never been greater, according to Mark Oldman, co-author of “The Internship Bible” and co-founder of Vault Inc., a career counseling company. About 80 percent of graduating college seniors now have done a paid or unpaid internship, according to surveys by Vault, compared with about 60 percent a decade ago.

“The interest in internships is at a fever pitch,” Mr. Oldman said. “It used to be that internships used to be a useful enhancement to one’s résumé. Now it’s universally perceived as an essential stepping stone to career success.”

But as internships rise in importance as critical milestones along the path to success, questions are emerging about whether they are creating a class system that discriminates against students from less affluent families who have to turn down unpaid internships to earn money for college expenses.

“It’s something that really makes me nuts,” said Cokie Roberts, an ABC News correspondent who spoke out about the problem on Capitol Hill several weeks ago at a gathering of Congressional interns. “By setting up unpaid internship programs, it seems to me that without completely recognizing it, it sets up a system where you are making it ever more difficult for people who don’t have economic advantages to catch up.”

Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University who has studied how people get ahead, said: “It moves the clock back when you need connections. It makes it doubly hard for social mobility and equal opportunity, because of the connections that it requires at an earlier age, the financial sacrifices and also the culture savoir-faire.”

While half of internships nationwide are paid or have at least a small stipend, according to national surveys conducted by Vault, unpaid internships are concentrated in the most competitive fields, like politics, television and film.

“The more glamorous an internship, the less likely it is paid,” Mr. Oldman said. “Washington in general has high-demand internships. In most cases they don’t have to pay or they don’t have to pay much.”


Washington internships serve as a pipeline that brings policy makers into the nation’s capital, some people fear that over the long term, internships will be another means, like the rising costs of college tuition, of squeezing voices from the working class and even the middle class out of high-level policy debates.Adam King, 19, a student at Brown University who is an intern in a Senate office, said, “Dealing with the interns of our office, they were of a class that was extremely privileged.” Mr. King got into a heated debate with fellow interns who disputed Michael Moore’s portrayal of military recruitment in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the film “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

“They don’t understand the issues, that the Army recruits poor people; there are Army recruiting people who say, ‘Don’t go to college, travel around the world,’ ” said Mr. King, who is working on Capitol Hill through a program that provides a stipend and housing. “That combined with the fact that so many interns wind up back on the Hill makes me scared that these people could possibly be making policy without understanding where so many of their constituents are coming from.”

That’s the point, Mr King. The ‘Old Boy Network’ exists primarily to keep upstarts from the wrong side of the tracks from injecting their unwelcome plebian viewpoints into the sacrosanct precincts of the halls of power as run and defined by…themselves. It ensures that the rich will only talk to other rich about the problems of the rich, which keeps everything nice and simple. The unpaid-intern system fits beautifully into the plutocracy that America is becoming.

(Nice article, Jennifer 8. Keep it up.)

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