Unpaid internships: unethical and unreasonable

Photo credit: Roberta Macedo

In what often feels like an increasingly competitive job market, college students may feel increasing pressure to supplement their resumes and internships are a popular choice. While there are countless considerations to take into account when applying for internships, for a lot of us, an unpaid position is a dealbreaker.

College sophomores and juniors feel overwhelming pressure to get summer internships and get ahead in their respective fields, but there are a whole slew of positions that many students do not even apply for due to the fact that they cannot afford to work for three months without pay.

Not only do the “opportunities” of unpaid internships exploit green employees’ labor, they also perpetuate a system that favors economic privilege and social class when hiring for positions that should be based on talent and interest.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) established requirements for unpaid internships under the Fair Labor Standards Act following what they call the “primary beneficiary test.” This test is meant to determine whether the interns or employers are the main beneficiaries of the relationship. If it’s the former, the DOL would allow the lack of compensation.

While this test protects interns to a certain degree, many of its facets are subjective. The DOL even says on its website that it is “a flexible test and no single factor is determinative,” which leaves opportunity for employers to take advantage of interns.

Some argue that these internships show who will really be capable in a work environment or who “wants it” badly enough, even if some might financially jeopardize themselves by incurring the cost of working in an unpaid position.

In March 2021, National Football League (NFL) reporter Jane Slater faced backlash when she posted “an opportunity for an unpaid internship.”

“There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business,” Slater said on Twitter. “I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind.”

Like many of my peers, the bulk of money I use to survive during the school year comes from working full-time in the summer to make up for my lower income when classes are in session. If I had not been fortunate enough to land a good paid internship this summer, I would have been right back at the summer job I’ve had since I was 15. That job is not a resume-booster, but it provides adequate pay.

A study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that 70% of college students are in the same boat, juggling working with full-time school. When summer comes around, many are faced with a difficult decision: should they choose a job that pays well or give in to intense pressure to get off-campus professional experience that may not provide a salary?

The Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that in 2020, 42% of online internships and 35% of in-person internships were unpaid. That means that financially disadvantaged students have far fewer opportunities to consider when it comes to advancing their career through real-world experience.

Internships can be career-altering. Those who can afford to apply for and take unpaid positions are often catapulted ahead of those who have to opt for paying summer jobs. Those who have an unpaid internship on their resume or the portfolio and recommendations that may accompany it, have an upper hand when applying for paid or full-time positions. Because so many career sectors are highly competitive, students tend to chase any opportunity they can to bolster their resume. However, seizing these opportunities can cost some students more than the benefits the internships provide.

We often hear these days that “everyone’s hiring” but most of the jobs available are not often the desirable positions that students hope to pursue. According to an analysis done by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as of March 2022, 41.4% of recent college graduates held jobs that don’t require a degree. To get the post-graduation jobs that students want, work experience in that sector is often a must.

The head of the Ford Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable institutions, has recognized the problem and said that privilege passes down, growing on previous privilege and working against students from lower-class backgrounds.

Even when financials are put aside, some students still have advantages — in the form of parental or social connections — over others when it comes to securing sought-after internships. The same CCWT study reported that 53% of all student internships in 2020 were obtained through personal networks.

There is a cycle of inequality in our society that is perpetuated in numerous ways but the wealth disparity that is prominent in corporate and leadership positions can be somewhat simply mended by eliminating unpaid internships and opening those opportunities to less privileged applicants.

Employers should also take the care to screen applicants for strong academic performance and interest in both the program and that career path to find the interns suited for their companies. Doing this would not only benefit the students hired, but also would benefit the employer as well. They might find interns bringing more to the table than just coffee.