Jobs for sale

What are the implications when internships go to the highest bidder?
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/18/2015

Note: This is the second part of a two-part report on interns by Canadian HR Reporter. Part one took a look at the business of unpaid internships, while part two examines the bigger picture and corporate social responsibility implications. 

Every job has its number. For one particular stint at the United Nations, the number was $22,000; for work with DefJam Records co-founder Russell Simmons and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, the number was $85,000.

But those numbers aren’t salaries — they’re price tags. 

Those two short-term “employment” stints in 2013 were internships, auctioned off to the highest bidder who was willing to pay for the privilege to perform the work. 

That auctioneering trend is perhaps an extreme twist on what unpaid interns face every day — most interns may not directly cut a cheque to their temporary employer, but with all the assorted costs of living, they are certainly paying for the privilege to work. 

That takes the whole concept of paid employment and stands it on its head, said Ross Perlin, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based author of Intern Nation. 

“It just distorts the whole notion of what an internship is about. In a way, it’s almost a purist expression of (the problem with unpaid internships)… it symbolizes the fact that actually this whole calculus is turned upside down. Instead of people getting a wage for work, it’s such a race to the bottom that people are willing to pay (for work).”

It’s certainly a symbol of the elitism factor involved in many unpaid internships. 

“(With) these auctions, it may be for a good cause — the money is going to a charity… but you have somebody who happens to have that money or their parents (buying the experience),” he said.  

Another example Perlin remembers clearly was a Vogue internship with Anna Wintour being auctioned off for $42,500 in 2010. 

“It’s just to have this little bit of exposure to a superstar,” he said.

Can you afford that job?

The message, and the message of unpaid internships in general, often comes across as “I can’t afford that sort of job,” said Perlin.

“If you need to work two, three, four internships to break into a given field, (young people) see that,” he said. 

“They think, ‘I can’t afford to play in this field; this is a field for rich kids,’ basically.

“There may be middle-class kids who are finding ways to navigate that — maybe a scholarship from your school, you’re able to stay at your parents’ place, your aunt’s place… but for many people, it means you can’t enter those kinds of fields, and that really changes the complexion of who can enter those kinds of professions, the profile of who is involved.”

And in a lot of cases, these are fields that already have issues when it comes to the diversity of the workforce — and internships are really exacerbating that, said Perlin. 

Unpaid internships deepen inequality, said Scott Brison, Liberal MP for Kings-Hants in Nova Scotia, who has spoken out about the issue. 

“My concern is that it deepens inequality of opportunity because more affluent families can afford to directly financially support young people as they pursue unpaid internships that may give them a real career advantage down the road, whereas (in) middle-income, middle-class families or low-income families, young people need to work at whatever they can to support themselves,” he said.

“Over time, that can really deepen inequality of opportunity.”

Unpaid internships are essentially blocking an entire demographic of talented young people from accessing certain sectors — such as media, entertainment and advertising — who often rely heavily on these internships for experience, said Alec Dudson, a former unpaid intern and creator of Intern Magazine in Manchester, U.K. 

 “There’s no reason why unpaid internships have to be the main means of young people gaining the relevant experience. There’s plenty of room for industries and universities to collaborate in finding different training schemes to ensure that students are industry-ready upon graduation,” he said. 

Besides, the lack of diversity it creates is just a bad business move, said Claire Seaborn, founder and president of the Canadian Intern Association in Toronto.

“It’s really problematic. I think that companies should be looking at this from a corporate social responsibility perspective in their recruitment because it is discriminatory in a lot of ways, and it does result in only the most privileged young Canadians being able to access a number of different professions.” 

Dudson would tend to agree. 

“In any industry, it’s short-sighted; in ones tasked with producing culture, it’s even more damaging,” he said. 

“You need a mix of perspectives and cultures in every industry. The idea that you benefit in the short-term by not paying folks is totally undermined in the long term. Pay people, train them and they’ll contribute more than you could have ever expected.”  

Perpetuating inequality

In addition to the business and CSR implications, there are also social ones. There are somewhat unsurprising studies out of the United States that have found people who are more privileged are more likely to do unpaid work, said Seaborn. 

“And that could be because they have the connections to get an unpaid internship in a particular area or because they have a parent or someone to help support them through that time,” she said, adding that those internships and connections can be instrumental to getting high-paying, high-powered jobs.

That could be one piece of the puzzle of why most people born near the bottom of the income ladder never significantly move up. Forty-three per cent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain there as adults, and 70 per cent never make it to a “middle class” income, according to a 2013 Pew Charitable Trusts research report.

Socioeconomics aren’t the only factor at play — race and gender seem, at least anecdotally, to be at work here as well, said Seaborn. 

Anecdotally, a lot of unpaid interns tend to be female in the U.S and Canada, she said. 

“That’s (perhaps) because it’s female-dominated industries that are more likely to have unpaid work, like nursing, nutrition, social work, teaching — all of those professions have an unpaid component, whereas more male-dominated fields like engineering or accounting all have paid (internship) programs,” said Seaborn. 

“So there’s actually quite a gendered component to it, just because of the gender divide in certain professions and fields. So that’s a huge problem as well, and I think it’s a reflection of society at large and which professions we are valuing.

“It’s essentially creating an added barrier for disadvantaged, racialized females in particular from accessing a lot of jobs.” 

It ultimately comes down to one thing — whose responsibility is it to train people? Who’s going to pay for that burden, she said — employers and educators, or the interns themselves?

“We’ve seen a big shift in terms of putting that burden onto the individual and onto the families and away from the employers and, in some respects, the educators as well.”

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