Free Labor


I’ve been meaning to touch on the idea of internships and free labor for some time. Is an unpaid internship unfair? Or is it the perfect low risk-high reward option for budding billionaires?

Most people have done some kind of internship. My first taste of paycheck was during my first internship back in my junior year of High School. One of the coolest experiences I’ve had thus far. Having taken a biotech class prior to that summer and having had a lot of fun, I decided to try learning what it would be like to take the microcellular biologist/chemist route. It was like having a career for a summer. Or as much as a career a 17 year old can have. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity that gave me experience in a field I could’ve potentially (at the time) followed. It was paid, too. Bought myself an iPod nano and a bitchin LCD TV. Just a win-win situation all around.

But paid internships were hard to find during college. I went so far as to ignore them outright (maybe bad move, looking back). I mean, back then I was broke. For a stretch of time, I had barely enough money to eat a quesadilla every now and then. One time, one of the cooks at the nearby taqueria I usually went to was nice enough to pay for my quesadilla. He could probably sympathize with all the broke ass students stumbling in all day. Paid him back, of course. Cool dude. Point is, I was way more preoccupied with finishing college and just fucking surviving that I didn’t have time to invest time into silly ass unpaid internships. I mean, how am I supposed to benefit from spending 20 hours a week bullshitting and filing papers if I’m not getting paid? I would’ve ruined my academic run stretching myself that thin (I was already working a job, even two for a time, and commuting 3 hours a day) and maybe even starve for sure. I needed to focus on graduation and spending my time wisely (studying, eating, commuting, training, watching DBZ, etc.) rather than spend my spare time on something that wasn’t going to help me right there and then (no paycheck, no study time, no rest time, etc.). Quite frankly, it seemed unwise to invest my spare time in an unpaid internship.

Of course, looking back now, I might tell myself to think differently about those damn internships. After all, my fears now are different than my fears then. Nowadays, college grads are left tinkering with their past and playing the what if  game. That is, sometimes I wonder if I had taken one of those unpaid internships and invest in the distant future (albeit at the cost of my sanity). Maybe doing the grunt work as a TA at Berkeley High one semester wouldn’t have been that bad after all. I’d have to pull more all-nighters (already had plenty to speak of), but it could’ve been worth it. I mean, it’s not like I’m still suffering from sleep deprivation now; I feel I’ve caught up on the sleep I lost in 2009, for example. Maybe I should’ve let myself been exploited (and do free labor) so that I could have secured something for the future (like a High School counselor gig, or something). Who cares if I would’ve had a difficult few months?

Granted, there are internships that do allow time for studying, even supply food and stuff. It’s not all bad. I mean, the experience you gain (resume fodder, really) and friends you make (human stepping stones, really) are much more valuable than the $3.25 quesadillas you would’ve bought with a paycheck, anyway. That is, unpaid internships are not completely unfair at all. You do get precious stuff out of the commitment. Spending a semester at Adobe doing free work could’ve let to me having a job developing a new homepage icon for some e-file tax website that my new friend probably would’ve recommended to me, with an office facing AT&T park and paid vacations to Aca-anywhere-you-goddamn-want-pulco. What if, right?

So I can appreciate internships for what they are: a chance to cultivate a resume, and also try-before-you-buy. I mean, if you ask people selling newspapers out on the streets if they’d take a chance learning new stuff with the only prospect being networking and no actual pay, they’d probably jump at the opportunity to try something else. It’s chance to break into something new, even better than selling newspapers. By the same token, people who take the chance and find out that they don’t actually like the work entailed by a particular internship (like cold calls, TPS reports, general bullshitting, etc.) could save themselves trouble in the near future by changing direction, salvaging their efforts and focusing on pursuing a different, more fulfilling career (like film making, chemistry, physical therapy, etc.). In that sense, I can appreciate a free opportunity, like an unpaid internship. But I can still totally understand how someone could have gone without them.