Let’s Rethink Unpaid Internships

Student internships provide an incredible opportunity to those looking for early experience. Now more than ever, it is difficult to find a job after college graduation without internship experience. These experiences may not guarantee a student a solid position with benefits and fair pay, but they are certainly better than not immersing oneself within their industry at all. Within the past decade, there has been a trend in high school internships as well. Those students are typically not getting paid, and if they are it is with a school credit. Of course, many of these students are hired after the internship and paid slightly more than minimum wage. They then have a better chance of getting accepted into the college and degree program of their choice.

Both students and businesses receive benefits from being involved in an internship program, and should certainly look for opportunities. However, unpaid internships have been quite the controversy lately. Just decades ago, it was much easier to find a job that paid a fair wage without having to pay tens of thousands of dollars in education. This is no longer a reality, and students must endure years of schooling and internships for a decent career. With the expenses of a college education, an unpaid internship is now seen as an unfair privilege. Only those who can afford to be funded by the university or their family can realistically afford to take an unpaid internship in today’s society.

This also involves the reality of intersectionality, meaning that marginalized groups are less likely to afford this opportunity. I find that privileged groups (including myself) don’t like talking about how their skin color or abilities allowed them a better chance at becoming successful, because people like to believe that they completely earned their success. But the truth is, if you are white and not a part of other groups that are actively discriminated against, racial privilege will always be one of the reasons that you are successful. Even if a white individual is not born into money and still had to work very hard, others will have to work twice as hard to get to the same exact place. White privilege allows for individuals to have more financially comfortable parents, have a paid education, receive family support, obtain higher wages, and get better opportunities from schools and internship offers.

Therefore, business professionals who offer internships must educate themselves about how their position may impact applicants. Some companies can not afford to offer paid internships, but still either need the labor or want to help their community. These are usually start-up or small businesses. Other companies are benefiting from free labor, without considering the differences in the applicant pool. Only financially privileged students are able to apply, gain experience, and therefore receive a better job after graduation. Those who must pay themselves through school while struggling in debt can not step away from their paying job, in order to offer unpaid labor to a business. It is simply not a reality for many students, and those companies who can afford a paid internship should consider this. Some students are blind to their own privilege and showcase their success as something everyone can work for, which ultimately glamorizes an unrealistic lifestyle.

The goal of a higher education is to allow an individual a successful future with a career they love. But if businesses are not trying to level the playing field between classes, then college will not serve its purpose. For some individuals, unpaid internships are a great option, specifically because the business hires them after the internship concludes. For others, the business only chooses one from a pool of internships to keep as an employee and the others continue to struggle financially. Hiring managers of major corporations must reflect on their internship programs, and understand how unpaid internships impact the applicant pool and only uplift certain classes. It is time for businesses, schools, and students to stop glamorizing unpaid labor and instead work harder to lessen the gap between classes.

I write about the business world, and the sociological conflicts that conquer it.