It's no surprise that mall staple clothing chain Anthropologie recruits college kids for menial tasks like hanging signs and shelving items, but now instead of paying minimum wage, they offer college credit for their Visual Display Internship. While on some holiday shopping last month, we came across this sign at the Anthropologie in Georgetown. Under the headline of "CREATIVE," the store said it wanted interns to "work with the in-store visual team to create the one-of-a-kind displays that make our store unique. Apply now for school credit." We all know that "school credit" is just a euphemism for "slave labor," thanks to personal experience and The New York Times's Steve Greenhouse's 2010 expose, but we didn't know it went all the way down to replacing the work of low-wage clothing-store employees.
These unpaid internship programs got deserved negative attention a couple of years ago when Greenhouse pointed out the way companies abuse unpaid interns to do grunt work without imparting either wisdom or pay. According to a more formal job listing for this internship at a store in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Interns are responsible for supporting the visual team with the successful implementation of all display elements within a store--windows, signage, platforms, shelf uppers and jewelry cases." Salary: "0.00 - 0.00 USD." In exchange for hanging signs and stocking promotional items, these college kids (it's a requirement that all applicants be enrolled), "Anthropologie will provide the intern with an on-the-job learning experience that is appropriate to their degree and is in line with expectations of their school."
This whole thing feels extra icky to us, as this program uses eager college students to do the jobs that broke college students usually take. It's not too far off from unpaid Safeway bag-boy interships. The legal justification for "college credit" in lieu of pay comes from federal criteria that deems these positions as educational, rather than as employment. Legally, the companies that offer unpaid internships can't rely on these non-employees as if they were regular workers. They also have to teach their volunteers something. "In other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern," writes Greenhouse. Hanging decorations and stacking jewelry boxes -- even if it is within the walls of a store we would want to live in -- doesn't sound all too "benevolent."
But beyond legal, there's also a practical justification for "college credit." Ross Perlin, a Stanford graduate and onetime unpaid intern who is writing a book on the subject, told Greenhouse that companies often bait students with these thankless positions as a "gateway to the white-color working world." Perlin added, "Employers increasingly want experience for entry-level jobs, and many students see the only way to get that is through unpaid internships." As a veteran from many an unpaid internship (for the record: the Atlantic Media Company pays its interns), I think it makes the whole set-up worse, but that is how it works. I justified it to myself by saying I would never get an actual job if it were not for these unpaid positions. But retail, on the other hand, offers many entry-points for low-skilled workers.
We reached out to Anthropologie, but the representative we spoke with told us they do not talk about their internship program.