We Need to Keep Talking About Unpaid Internships

Krista from Team DC penned an op-ed about her thoughts on unpaid internships and why she believes that things need to change. 

I remember learning about internships in high school. During many college campus tours I was constantly touted to about that particular school’s amazing internship program by overeager student tour guides and how 9 out of 10 students completed at least one internship during their time at school. I was always going to do an internship. I knew this. It has long be promoted as the way to try out a career to see if it is the right fit. You could build your resume in short bursts and learn real-world experience while learning in a classroom. However as I began to do research I was shocked to find out how many of them required a full-time commitment yet were unpaid. This struck me as extremely unfair.

Internships themselves, whether they are unpaid or not, are an issue. Today not only are millennials expected to be college-educated, but we now must also have work experience in our chosen fields before even being handed our degrees. Increasingly paying upwards of $60,000 a year (in the U.S.) for your higher education is not enough, you must also now devote your free time to an unpaid internship. And we are also meant to be grateful that a company is willing to let us do work for free. Also let us not forget about the internships that actually require previous experience.    

Our parents did not need to work for free. They were not expected to have professional experience before even being handed a diploma. They graduated from school and entered the workforce with an entry-level (usually full-time) position. They could immediately start paying back loans and saving for the future. Maybe they didn’t even have any loans because any free time outside of school was filled with a part-time job and not an unpaid position. Tuition and student loans are now too high and overwhelming for anyone to be working for free.

I absolutely understand that interns are there to learn and will require more supervision and explanation than a typical entry-level employee, but in my experience I have always completed tasks for the company In interned for that would be considered assistant work, whether it be filing, making copies, updating spreadsheets. In my experience, many companies advertise for an unpaid intern when what they really want is an unpaid assistant. If a company cannot afford to pay an intern minimum wage, which is never more than $88 a day even in the states with the highest minimum wages (or £7.05 in the UK at typical graduate age). Who can forget the infamous Urban Outfitters unpaid internship position that required a full-time, YEAR-LONG commitment with only travel expenses covered. Not to mention the fact that the position was based in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world to live and work. Due to the size (and past criticisms of the company) of Urban Outfitters, online outrage was swift and appropriate. Unfortunately, too many smaller and lesser-known companies recruit for internships like these all of the time.      

Unpaid internships often require the interns to accept help from family members, dip into hard-earned savings, or even take out loans in order to be able to work for free and to have the experience on his/her C.V. In an interview with the BBC the Sutton Trust stated that often times taking an unpaid internship was “beyond the means of the vast majority of individuals” and that paying all interns who work for over a month the minimum wage would significantly improve access to these placements for those from more modest backgrounds, offering them a stepping stone into many coveted jobs, thus increasing social mobility. If companies are adamant about not paying interns then the job requirements should be no more than two days a week for no longer than a month. Even that can really discourage people who can’t afford to work for free, so companies should try absolutely everything they can do pay their interns. If they cannot afford to do so, then maybe they do not deserve an intern.

This topic has been discussed extensively throughout the past twenty-years and while there are laws in place designed to protect an unpaid intern, they are extremely vague and can easily be worked around – for example interning for school credit rather than payment. It is important to keep this topic alive and well and open for continued discussion in order to enact real change.

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