Home > Uncategorized > Unpaid Internships Reinforce Inequality: Cooperative Work-Study Programs Do Not

Unpaid Internships Reinforce Inequality: Cooperative Work-Study Programs Do Not

July 5, 2016

“Breaking a Cycle that Allows Privilege to go to Privilege”, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s op ed piece in today’s NYTimes, opens with this assertion:

TALENT is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. And while many Americans believe fervently and faithfully in expanding opportunity, America’s internship-industrial complex does just the opposite.

The article describes the current unpaid internship-industrial-complex as one that favors affluent students with connections over those who are outsiders since only affluent students can afford to work for free. As a result, “…some students take a summer job in food service to pay the bills, (while) others can afford to accept unpaid jobs at high-profile organizations, setting them on a more lucrative path.”

To address this problem, Mr. Walker suggests the government underwrite funding to promote an increase in paid internships. I have a different idea: the government should encourage businesses to expand cooperative work-study programs and increase the compensation for students already enrolled in those programs. As a co-op student at Drexel University in the late 1960s I was able to earn enough money in my six month stints as a trainee to cover my college costs and make a determination that I did not want to work in the private sector. The two major companies that I worked for also benefitted from my work experience. I was assigned tasks that would have otherwise been deferred or required the hiring of another fully compensated employee and had an opportunity to recruit me if they believed I possessed the talent and work ethic they valued in their employees.

Cooperative work-study programs would also shift the burden for job training back to the corporations where they once belonged. At the time I entered college, my father worked for a major corporation in their training department– a job that was outsourced by the time he retired presumably because it was deemed outside the scope of the corporation’s responsibility and/or did not “add value” to the bottom line of the company. The value of corporate training is intangible but important. When new employees, sales staff and managers were trained together within an organization it helped build esprit de corps and helped individuals develop an allegiance to the company they worked for. When profit is the sole driving force, however, issues like “esprit de corps” and “allegiance” are immaterial.

And it is the intense and relentless focus on the bottom line that is the problem here. Neither the Ford Motor Company nor Mobil Oil, the corporations I worked for, can “afford to pay” interns or co-op students enough to cover their college costs because these costs do nothing to help the bottom line of their institutions. Moreover if they spend valuable resources on co-op students like me who ultimately decide to work elsewhere they are effectively using scarce training resources for someone else’s benefit… and that “someone else” could well be a competitor!

Both Mr. Walker’s idea and mine are predicated on a shift in the corporate ethos away from profit toward the common good. In an ideal world this would be commonsensical. But for now we are trapped in a world where individual corporate profit is more important than the commonwealth.


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