It’s that time of year for college students, where we put forward our heavily revised resumes and present the best version of ourselves to receive an interview. Internships are hard to earn in general, but you know what’s harder? Earning an internship that pays.
As college students, we have enough burnout from rigorous coursework, extracurriculars, training (especially if you are a student-athlete), keeping up with our relationships and working a job to pay for rent and other wants and necessities. Imagine the weight it would take off of a student’s shoulders if the internship they applied to would substitute for the job they had to work to pay rent?
I understand that paid internships exist, but they are not as common as unpaid internships. Low-income students are disproportionately affected by the unpaid internship complex more than other students. Don’t get me wrong, unpaid internships must burn out other students that work, train and have extracurricular activities too. It’s just that they tend to have an easier time with expenses than low-income students. These students have to prioritize working a job with the opportunity cost of gaining experience just because the internship does not pay appalling. This barrier has brought a lot of attention to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) on the idea of reducing internship inequity. They said that “The lack of affordability of both internships and, more broadly, a college education, leaves low-income students at a significant disadvantage in a competitive labor market.” Although it may be true that regardless of the pay, the internship will (somewhat) help your resume, but many students do not have that opportunity because they have survival needs to take care of first. In summary, the famously controversial Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “Experience doesn’t pay the bills!”
This extra weight on top of a busy schedule and lack of pay not only discourages students while they are in school but even when they are looking to settle for a job. Unpaid internships usually include tasks that are basic and quick to learn at paid internship opportunities. One thing that paid internships provides is a valuable experience for the participating students; they receive direct firsthand experience for the career path of their choice and a gateway to the job that they want. The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a study including 9200 undergraduate seniors back in 2013 and found that “63.1% of students with a paid internship under their belt had received at least one job offer. But only 37% of former unpaid interns could say the same—a negligible 1.8 percentage points more than students who had never interned.” The stakes are much higher right now than they were seven years ago. Suppose there was roughly a two-point difference between the ability to get a job without an internship and with an unpaid internship back then. In that case, the statistic must be significantly smaller now.
Aside from the students’ point of view, this power dynamic between employers and interns is unethical. Why are employers exploiting the work ethic of college students by paying them in “experience?” Sometimes employers scam students into believing that they are earning something by providing college credit, but let’s not forget that students must enroll in a course designated for their internship that adds to tuition cost. Both the public and private sectors are guilty of this measure. Internships arose in the early 1900s but gained popularity in the 1930s when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) considered interns as nonemployees as long as they do not qualify as a ‘primary beneficiary.’ ADP explains that when a primary beneficiary test is taken, the court decides who receives more benefits in the relationship between the intern and the employer. This act is why there has been a major increase in different types of internships with basic tasks that companies do not gain much from in terms of their service’s outcome—they don’t benefit as much as the intern.
Why let such a mentally straining, directionless and exploitative thing exist? They are objectively and morally unethical, yet they are in practice because the law allows it. Unpaid interns are closely related to prisoners who are often working towards a falsely-hoped outcome with no compensation. Abolishing the unpaid internship complex advocates for a lot, especially when you are a college student sacrificing your mental and physical health for a spot with the major leaders of any industry in this country.