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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The uneven playing field of unpaid internships

The New York Times this week reported on hip a new employment trend for America’s college graduates: not getting paid for your work. Unpaid post-college internships have long been industry standard for in film and non-profit companies, they report, but now the trend has spread to, “fashion houses, book and magazine publishers, marketing companies, public relations firms, art galleries, talent agencies — even to some law firms.”

While few outside of New York might shed tears at how hard it is to get a job at a fashion house, the growing internization and underemployment of America’s college graduates actually bodes poorly for our future. And it’s not just reserved for creative professions, but in government agencies where access to entry-level jobs is increasingly limited by one’s ability to work for free.

The employment prospects for recent college graduates today remain, on the whole, pretty bleak. And while some firms predict an uptick in the near future, that has yet to materialize. Youth unemployment in American is almost as high as it is in the Middle East, where unemployment sparked revolutions last year. Beltway dysfunction could use young blood to break the hold of the entrenched interests, but there are ever-increasing barriers of entry for new applicants.

It’s almost impossible to get a job working on policy in this town without an unpaid internship (i.e., working for free). In part, the internships are necessary because of basic law of supply and demand: there are a huge number of eager, ambitious young people all scrambling to get a very small number of jobs. While understandable, the result is a class system where those wealthy enough to afford to live without income in an expensive city (and Washington is an expensive city by any definition) get experience and access to jobs. Young people in the middle class or from more modest backgrounds are shut out – the economics simply don’t work.

Make no mistake: Washington is a difficult place to get started. The barriers to entry are extremely high: most entry-level jobs that actually pay wages require, at a minimum, a master’s degree and some sort of “experience” (which is usually an unpaid internship). Getting into a master’s program in Washington is expensive – Georgetown University, for example, charges nearly $60,000 per year for a 3-year Master’s program in security studies. The cheapest option of the “big four” schools in D.C. is George Washington’s Elliott School… at $51,000 per year for a two-year master’s degree.

So young college graduates looking to get a start in Washington, D.C., face the choice of either working without income for some indeterminate period of time (I have run across resumes with more than one year of unpaid internship work), or finding a way to pay for a $100,000 graduate degree. Considering the looming crisis of student debt that threatens to torpedo the economy and the growing number of Ph.D.s on food stamps, requiring an extra $100,000 dollars of education just to get one’s foot in the door is an astounding barrier to entry.

But unpaid interns have begun fighting back by filing multiple class-action lawsuits; they allege that the system of using college-aged kids to do entry-level work for free is inherently unfair and exploitative — and may violate federal labor laws. The phenomenon of the unpaid intern used to be almost unheard of: in 1992, only 17 percent of college graduates had taken an internship, but by 2008 nearly 50 percent of graduates were working for free. Now, working for a year or two without any income is considered so routine many don’t even bat an eyelash at the thought.

Then again, it’s not like interns are the worst victims of unfair labor practices. IKEA, for example, is facing accusations that it used political prisoners in East Germany and Cuba to manufacture its flat-box furniture. Last year the Bon Appetit Management Company teamed up with the United Farm Workers of America to release a shocking report on the appalling working conditions on America’s factory farms, which produced the inexpensive frisée lettuce you and I will probably eat in a salad this week.

So seen in this light, it can seem a bit overwrought to focus on the indignities of an unpaid internship. Especially when said interns have the resources to hire the attorneys to file a class-action lawsuit on their behalf. Low-wage farm workers, for example, don’t have access to media-savvy advocates,  and they face a far more daunting work life as a consequence.

Still, the internization of America’s college graduates should prompt us to ask: If going to college doesn’t improve your job prospects, why bother going? And what does it mean when access to government jobs is increasingly limited only to those applicants who can count on their families for financial support?

We don’t have the answers to that question. Not yet, at least. But the growing inequality of American workers – white and blue collar – is deeply troubling.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project, where he focuses on asymmetric operations and national security strategy, as well as a columnist for The Atlantic