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Invisible Hand, Invisible Pay

Last week, my exceptionally qualified and talented friend encountered a professional conundrum. She posted on Facebook that had received an offer for a great job after graduation from law school that—unfortunately—did not come complete with a salary. Responders to her post offered heartfelt congratulations and buoyed her with much deserved support. A few posters told her to “follow her heart” and look at the internship as an investment opportunity where she could gain knowledge and invaluable experience. After offering my own congratulations, I told her not to take the job. While many unpaid internships can and do offer individuals with valuable knowledge and skills that can improve their career prospects (or at least pad their resumes), much unpaid work will not lead to better employment prospects. Instead, the absence of compensation for work that requires skills that a worker already possesses less-than-subtly reflects market conditions in that particular field. If the markets are self-regulating, pushed along by some invisible hand, then it would seem that the wage rate in an industry corresponds with that industry’s demand for labor, at least in the short run. Non-existent wages could prove to be a good indicator of an industry’s need, or lack thereof, for additional, entry-level laborers. No matter how valuable the unpaid experience, workers will still be hard-pressed to find paid work in an industry that isn’t hiring. There is, however, another force at work—one far less benign than the invisible hand—that is facilitating the bloom of unpaid internship in industries where job competition is steep: the employer’s capitalization on the fears of the frantic job-seeker. Certain employers may artfully disguise jobs as unpaid internships because they believe that collective panic over a tough economic situation will prompt some individuals to forgo pay just to get his or her “foot” in the door. It’s up to the job-seekers to prove these employers wrong. While the Department of Labor has developed standards that forbid unpaid work unless certain criteria are met—one of which is that no unpaid internship can eliminate a position for a paid employee—in reality, it is up to the job-seeker to determine what the value of his or her labor is worth in a given setting.