Saturday, November 28, 2009

Interns-- The New Slave Labor Of Corporate America?


My retirement was a well-planned and-- for me, at least-- a fairly joyous occasion. I eased myself out of the company over a six month period and even made a made a world tour to say good-bye to our affiliates in London, Hamburg, Paris, Milan, Bangkok, Tokyo and Hong Kong. There was a farewell party on the patio and I got my first watch since college, a Girard-Perregaux

Subsequent retirements weren't as emotionally smooth for the retirees as the company embarked on a series of rapid and drastic downsizes in response to a systematic looting of our parent company, TimeWarner, by AOL huckster Steve Case and his cronies. With the guidance of Mitt Romney's vulture capital company-- Bain Capital, one of the new owners-- senior employees with high salaries made good targets for cost-cutting, although soon departments were being eliminated and then whole floors. Eventually TimeWarner sold off the music division, which has accelerated the lay-offs to stave off the inevitable.

This week I spoke to one of my old friends who still works there, someone I had once hired as a secretary and is now the head of one of the company's most important divisions. He mentioned he shares a secretary with someone even more senior than himself. When I expressed disbelief, he told me nonchalantly that secretaries in the music business have gone the way of the victrola. Now everything is done by interns. And when he says interns, he isn't talking about people like Pirates pitcher Ross Ohlendorf, currently interning at the Department of Agriculture. No, what were talking about is a sinking company trying to stay afloat by replacing salaried positions with slave labor so that the few at the tippy-top can still get their seven-figure annual bonuses. Yesterday's NY Times scratched around the surface of the phenomenon, although missing some key points about major corporations exploiting what amounts to slave labor.
On-the-job training has its roots in the Middle Ages. Apprenticeship, it was called then, and it generally was for the young.

The new variation, now called an internship, is not the painstaking, multiyear experience it once was, but it still offers the same advantages: a chance for a worker to gain knowledge at little or no cost to the employer.

In boom times, companies with too much work for existing employees-- yet not enough work to justify another hire-- may have turned to temporary workers. But with the economy still in the doldrums, companies again are opting for unpaid or low-paid internships to get the extra work done.

It is a brilliant, recession-proof way to double your work force, said Drew McLellan, whose McLellan Marketing Group in Des Moines has long hired unpaid interns. “It’s more money to the bottom line for you.”

While there are no definitive numbers on how many internships exist or how many companies offer them, most are probably at smaller companies and nonprofit groups rather than large public companies, according to, a placement service with some 13,000 listings. C. Mason Gates, the president and founder of, said that with economic uncertainty, smaller businesses would continue to view interns as a source of growth, talent development and project-based work.

Internships have never been out of vogue, but the competition for positions is heating up, which is good news if you run a company needing economical, entry-level workers... While menial tasks often go with the territory, the best internships interpose photocopying with client meetings, true-life assignments and mentoring... While most interns receive no money-- and others slightly more than the $7.25 hourly minimum wage-- interns are not exactly free. At least initially, it is more efficient for managers to do something themselves than to train someone.

At least there haven't been the kinds of reports out of corportae America-- at least not yet-- about interns being preyed upon sexually, the way congressional interns, pages, have been. Gargantuan workplace power imbalances can lead to that when there are disturbed individuals involved.



At 4:47 AM, Blogger Kari Stevenson said...

It was always a mark of a class barrier that I graduated college with 1/8 of the resume my peers had. Thiw was in part because I had to work a job that paid me in real dollars over the summers, as opposed to 'experience' and 'connections' and 'networking'.

It's funny, because now at least I'm a rock star pastry chef, which pays me more than my degree ever did...


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