OUR VIEW: Unpaid internships are unethical


CW Editorial Board

For many college students, all the hours we put in going to class, studying and participating in extracurriculars are geared toward one thing: the holy grail of resume-builders that is the summer internship.

Summer internships, and internships in general, are valuable for so many reasons; they help us to gain real-world experience, to see if the career path we are on is the one for us and to build professional networks that will ideally help us become employed full-time after college. We are consistently told that once we leave college, employers will value this sort of hands-on experience much more than any 4.0 GPA or honors society.

Based on all of this, it is unsurprising how much effort college students put into fine-tuning their resume and scouring online job postings to find the perfect internship. When the fateful e-mail comes mid-spring semester bearing the subject line “Congratulations!”, we are overjoyed. But then, the catch: you will be compensated not in any monetary form, but rather, in hours of the highly-touted gift of “experience”.

Unpaid internships are a frequent complaint for college students, but seem to be a begrudgingly accepted ritual of passage to entering the post-grad workforce. We rarely think about just how damaging they are in terms of the economic mobility of lower classes and diversity within the upper echelons of the job market.

Think about the people that can afford to have their parents foot the bill for an extended stay in an expensive city like New York City, Washington D.C. or Los Angeles. These people are at least upper-middle class, probably white, and have received an excellent education. They get the summer internship of their dreams, gain great job experience and now have a resume and connections that will get them hired at a well-paying post-grad job. The cycle of wealth continues, and the same exact types of people who have been in power in the workforce remain in power.

Now think about the people who can’t afford to take an unpaid summer internship. They are receiving a college education, but probably have to work outside of school to help pay for tuition and their cost of living. Their family may be middle to lower-middle class. They can’t take an entire summer of no pay, let alone come up with thousands of dollars to afford to live away from home. They get the summer internship of their dreams, too, but they can’t afford the opportunity, and are denied the same resume-building experience of their more privileged peers, preventing them from receiving the same high-paying job. Thus, people of lower socioeconomic status and, often, people of color, are left out of the top levels of the workforce.

Most of the time, we’re not thinking about these facts because we don’t have to. Those of us who have been privileged enough to end up at universities often have come from the sort of backgrounds where an unpaid internship is feasible for us and our families. When one comes our way, we are annoyed about the lack of pay, but still gleefully take it, not thinking about the message this sends to employers and the cycle we are helping to perpetuate.

This is not meant to vilify anyone who has ever taken an unpaid internship. They are a sad reality in our capitalist culture, and seem like a necessary evil. However, there are many steps we can take to push for change.

Talk to your lawmakers about creating regulations for employers to curtail hiring unpaid interns. Vote people into office who support these steps. Call out companies who don’t pay their interns and call for change. If you yourself are hired for an unpaid internship, talk to your employer about receiving some sort of stipend for travel, rent, or living costs. Often, the funds are there, but they definitely won’t be given if we don’t ask.

We may still be students, and along with that, still amateurs, but that does not mean we are worthless. We bring vigor, creativity, and new perspectives to workplaces, and we deserve to be compensated like every other worker. If we continue to fight for this, we can take small steps towards creating true equality of opportunity and a more inclusive, diverse workplace.

Our View represents the consensus of the Crimson White Editorial Board.