ON TOPIC, OFF-CAMPUS: Unpaid internships harm all involved

In most situations, the idea that an employer could get away with not paying for labor would be ridiculous and most obviously illegal. With internships, however, it has become somewhat acceptable, even expected. According to the Washington Post, around 43 percent of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid. Other research shows that closer to 60 percent of internships are unpaid, though this does not distinguish between for-profit and non-profit companies. With the rising costs of attending college and a growing number of families living paycheck to paycheck, unpaid internships are increasingly disenfranchising skilled and qualified students and graduates who cannot afford to work for free, a consequence harmful for both the employer and potential employee. 

Internships are not the coffee-fetching, menial grunt work they used to be. Oftentimes, companies use interns as a short-term fill for normal, entry-level positions. Some internships even require previous work or volunteer experience in a similar field in order to apply. When employers benefit from this type of work, and still leave the position unpaid, it is nothing more than pure exploitation. In today’s world, employers have come to expect that job applicants will come to the interview with some type of previous experience like an internship. This leaves interns, especially current college students, trapped between voluntarily becoming a victim of wage theft or not being able to gain valuable experience necessary for gaining an entry-level position. 

With the growing value and requirement of internships, those applicants from low-income families or without a financial support system are feeling the pressure. Students who find they cannot afford to take an unpaid position—usually working upwards of 40 hours a week for months at a time—are effectively taken out of the pool. This disenfranchisement has classist and racist undertones, as those from marginalized groups are more likely to come from lower-income brackets. Not only are students who are not financially able to work for free harmed, but so are those who are able to take an unpaid internship. 

Students who take an unpaid internship are only 1.8% more likely to receive a job offer than those who have no internship at all, according to new research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Meanwhile, over 63 percent of those with paid internships received at least one job offer. Study after study shows that those with paid internships are not only more marketable for jobs, but receive higher salaries than their unpaid counterparts. 

In the current labor market of low unemployment and overqualified workers, employers would be vastly undercutting themselves by not paying interns. Today’s internships are not the apprenticeships of medieval times, where the craftsman would provide food, clothing and housing for their student. Instead, a company offering an unpaid position is simply not marketing itself as a competitive option to future employees and is limiting the pool of skilled applicants it may get to choose from.

Employers are not truly invested in the betterment, growth and training of an employee if there is no financial stake in it. This logic can help account for the disparity in job offers between paid and unpaid interns and why those who are able to seek opportunities in the short-term are hurt in the long run.

Additionally, unpaid positions pose a legal risk for employers who must make sure they meet 10 tests set out by the Courts to ensure the company is incurring all of the burden and the intern is the sole beneficiary. Some have found themselves fighting litigation over the fairness of intern working conditions. 

Internships can amount to valuable experience and learning opportunities for those who are able to take advantage of them. Making it harder for students to gain these benefits and limiting an employer’s ability to find highly-qualified, hard-working individuals to fill these positions is good for no one. While unpaid internships can help a company cut costs in the short-term, it ends up hurting everyone in the long-run. The Department of Labor needs to again examine its regulations on internships to protect students of all backgrounds and classes and promote a healthy economy that strives off of valuable, productive work being compensated fairly.  

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