The Ford Foundation Wants You To Buy Its Edsel

There is nothing wrong, nothing at all, with the Ford Foundation using its resources to help underprivileged students by giving internships to a select group of students. It’s Edsel Ford’s money (more or less), and its stewards can use it to promote whatever they want.

At the Ford Foundation, we take seriously the responsibility to ensure our paid internships help dismantle privilege. In addition to screening for strong academic performance and an interest in social justice issues, our managers require that interns be recipients of needs-based financial aid. In this way, we offer sought-after positions to young people who otherwise might not have the chance to pursue them.

President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, explains at length the benefits of a sexy internship on a student’s future, as if nobody knows.

The stakes of America’s broken internship system are high. As report after report reminds us, this generation of students faces significantly worse job prospects than its predecessors. Without the short-term opportunities to help them learn, grow, connect with mentors and begin climbing the earnings curve, many promising young people with limited means are denied the chance to rise as high as their talent will take them.

But is America’s “internship system” broken? What Walker refers to is the allowance for unpaid internships. When SDNY Judge William H. Pauley III held that internships without some form of compensation, whether monetary or college credit, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, it was seen as a blow for social justice, leveling the playing field between the privileged who could afford to work for free, and the unprivileged, who had neither the contacts nor ability to take advantage of unpaid internships. None of this, of course, formed the basis of Judge Pauley’s decision, but the consequences seemed to fit the narrative.

Not everyone applauded.

We need internships. We need unpaid internships. We need to give young people an opportunity to learn their craft, to impress potential future employers, to show they can do the job they hope to hold for years to come.  And if internships must be paid, they aren’t internships and the they aren’t worth it.

And until the Second Circuit reversed Judge Pauley, real life consequences flowed. Rather than unprivileged students riding unicorns on internship rainbows, internships disappeared. What fails to occur to the willingly blind is that interns are pretty useless, a suck on time and productivity, and a general pain in the ass. Sorry, kids, but you don’t actually contribute anything. It’s not your fault. You lack the skills beyond the ability to fetch coffee, since very few corporations have a burning need for an analysis of critical theory in the production of their widgets.

But the Ford Foundation isn’t a business. It makes nothing. It spends money to promote causes in which it believes, which is great and what foundations are supposed to do. And it pays its interns. And it only hires interns who receive need-based financial aid, which is clearly classist and discriminatory, but its the good kind of classist discrimination according to the victim pyramid.  And that, too, is fine.

Walker, however, calls for everyone to do as Ford Foundation does.

Fortunately, there is another option. Many organizations are beginning to pay interns. This is important because employers should not only compensate students for their time and contributions, but also eliminate barriers that prevent low-income and underrepresented students from pursuing these opportunities.

While some nonprofits may be unable to pay their interns — even though they depend on their contributions of energy and know-how — the government can help turn unpaid positions into paid opportunities for those at risk of getting left behind.

If a corporation can, and wants to, pay interns, that’s huge. Walker is quite right to note that this enables students who have to worry where their next meal is coming from to take on jobs that will certainly help them to prepare for the future, and make them more desirable job candidates when they enter the market. Good on them.

As a college student who bought a package of fish sticks for my dinners (3 per night to stretch it out), earning money was always an issue. As a law student, I took some jobs of which I am not proud because paid cash at the end of the shift, meaning I could eat again tomorrow. I know, being a white male and all privileged, I should have been able to eat at the Club with Muffy, but somehow my folks blew their advantage. Bad parents. So I worked my butt off to eat.

But then, Walker’s two-step devolves into a black hole.  The Ford Foundation has moolah to spread around, but it’s unwilling to put its money where Walker’s mouth is. Other non-profits can’t afford to pay interns? Great, the Ford Foundation wants to fund your . . . oh wait. No, it doesn’t.

The Ford Foundation wants the government to fund its dream of equality, where the poor can get paid (and the not poor enough can go fly a kite) by taking taxpayer money and using it to fund students who are already receiving scholarship money to beef up their resume so they can get better paying jobs out of college. While Walker never mentions the word, what he’s calling for is another layer of welfare, the Edsel of transfer payments.

Years ago, I used to take on summer interns, and I paid them because I personally like the idea of paying it forward given my college and law school hunger games. They would help wherever they could, and otherwise watch and listen, like a shadow. Then something changed, and interns felt entitled to speak. A lot. Ask questions. Interject with clients. In court. Say stupid things that they thought were brilliant. Constantly.

They told me they were entitled to do so, as that’s what they believed would help them. I told them to apply for a job at Dairy Queen, as they were then too much of a burden and annoyance to have around. And I never took on another intern. You couldn’t pay me to take on an intern today.

But if your organization is willing to take on interns, that’s great. If it’s willing to pay them, even better. If it helps students who would otherwise not have the connections to gain resume fodder about their mad coffee-fetching skillz, so that they can use it to get a better job after college, you’re a wonderful humanitarian. But don’t look to those who want to tell other people how to spend their money, and deprive other students of opportunity when organizations choose not to pay student interns.

And if Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation really want to help underprivileged students succeed, it might consider using some of Edsel’s wherewithal to tell them not to major in gender studies or critical race theory, and instead learn something that some employer might find desirable in a new hire. And stop spending their time whining about the Royall Crest and study harder. Or if this hurts your social justice feelings, then perhaps the Ford Foundation could just put its money where Walker’s mouth is and fund internships.


18 thoughts on “The Ford Foundation Wants You To Buy Its Edsel

  1. Richard G. Kopf


    I once had an unpaid summer intern from a top ten law school who literally feel asleep during a jury trial. I was embarrassed for him and me. Sadly, when he awoke with a start realizing that everyone in the courtroom had been aware of his nap the kid reacted with a goofy smile and no apology.

    By and large, I am glad the federal government will not allow the payment of interns who work for federal judges. Frankly, they don’t deserve to be paid even if they don’t sleep their way through the experience. From a productivity perspective, they are worthless and, as you say, they are a major time suck. A reference letter at the end of the summer assuming the intern wasn’t a disaster is payment enough.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      The worthlessness never bothered me (it’s not like they have any skills or can be trusted to do anything), but the time suck was a price I couldn’t afford. Entitlement is a bitch. Their nap would have been a better use of my time.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        I always tell interns up front that they are time multipliers. My time, not theirs. I don’t give a rat’s ass about how long it takes them to do something, but if I give them something to do that would take me an hour, and they then spend 2 hours bothering me in the course of getting it done, that’s a factor of 0.5 and not tenable — they aren’t going to learn much during the internship. OTOH, if they do an acceptable job with only half an hour of my input, they’re providing a factor of 2 and they can have all my time they want.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            Meh. It’s more about the expectation-setting than the actual handling. So in your case, it’d be something like “You can be my intern if you give me a $50K check up front. Once that clears, you can start coming in and shadowing me. A peep out of you and you’re out on the street with no refund. Friday afternoons at 3:00, you can buy me margaritas, and if they’re any good, you can ask relevant questions about anything I did that you found confusing or interesting, and I’ll answer until I’m done drinking.”

            1. Patrick Maupin

              Barleycorn’s right. You’re missing out on a lot of business opportunities.

  2. wilbur

    I can’t imagine doing an internship where you basically just follow someone around and observe, paid or unpaid. The boredom would drive me crazy.
    I had a couple of paid intern gigs during law school summers; they worked my butt off and I gave them productive work output. Good for both sides.

      1. DaveL

        I did a paid internship in the QC department of a company that made cylinder heads. My duties included (among other things), gauge R&R analysis and modifying the programming for their ancient CMM that ran on HP Basic. I also tracked down a problem with their incoming castings that had been plaguing them for months. Not only did I have skills to contribute, I had skills nobody else at the company possessed.

        Attitudes towards such programs seems to diverge by class. The skilled trades have had apprenticeships since time immemorial, and those have been paid for generations. Even in centuries gone by, a master would provide room, board, and clothing for an apprentice (though he also got to beat him, if that’s any consolation). The internship, on the other hand, seems to have developed as creature of the white-collar world, where in days gone by those aspiring to professional work would have been expected to be the sons of gentry, able to work without much concern as to their source of material support, and not expected to have anything to contribute in terms of practical skills.

      2. David

        I believe there is a significant difference between interns in the legal field and those in technical fields. Our company hires interns for their current technical skill set. Successful interns complete projects which add value and they earn their compensation. At the same time, they receive training and exposure to the real world in addition to their paychecks. Successful interns are recruited after graduation be our employees.

        1. SHG Post author

          I think you’re right. But we’re talking a different group than either law (about which I know a bit) or social justice about which Walker is talking. Tech skills are a little more objective and real.

          1. John Barleycorn

            CDL’s should really put the same sort of credentials up on their websites as mariner port pilots do.

            Your profession and being a marine pilot have nearly the same jaded attrition rate (most of the bits don’t really change that much but knowing when the do and how to navigate around the bits that never change is different weather conditions is 90% of the game).

            But for the “navigation” skills of reading the delta. If there even is a delta…

            But please do continue to fill us in about them fucking judges deciding to switch their lighthouse signals on and off just for grins and them shoals of prosecutorial discretion are a continuous delight.

            In the meantime keep the red buoys on the right when returning from sea.

            P.S. Speaking of which… you have touched on it in the past but isn’t it about time your interns did some research, and you came up with the time to fill us all in on the history and reverence of relevance as to why the jury is always seated next to the prosecution well in this country regardless of the port and starboard bias of the bench? Just for starters!

            Perhaps a few of your readers simply need to learn, and/or be reminded of, the rules of the “justice” road in order to bow in reverence before the simplistic adjudication altar?

            It worked for Ford after all…

  3. JR

    I use an intern for one of my side jobs. While there are tech skills involved with it, a lot is just physical work that needs to be done, and most in learned by the school of hard knocks. The one thing that I was very clear to her about was with dealing with the clients. Some of them are old friends that I have worked along side with, but at this event they are the customer, we are the hired help. No one spends their cash to see us, they come to see and hear the clients. Don’t offer opinions on the client’s work, even if asked. Don’t react when you hear or see the client mess up. Be a fly on the wall but make them look and sound as good as you can.

    At first she just watched and would ask a ton of questions later as we were driving away from the event. Slowly I could point out a task to be done and she would get it done while I could attend to something else more pressing. Later she just took care of some things without being told. At that point I started giving her a cut.

    She now has a sessional job in the field and keeps getting moved to bigger events and passing up long time workers for promotions. It has worked out well for both parties, but I think I got very good starting material to work with.

    Your milage my vary.

      1. Sgt. Schultz

        TIL two things:

        1. Given the chance, tech guys will seize it to tell quasi-related stories.
        2. Tech guys’ stories are boring.

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