Despite Benefits, Unpaid Internships Exploit, Undervalue Students

Unpaid internships exploit inexperienced young people and companies that suggest college-aged people endure them before landing a “real job” should be ashamed.

I understand the argument for them: Working an internship “pays” in real-world experience that has no monetary value. It can also be a proving ground where young people demonstrate their competence, reliability and resilience. It’s true. I agree.

Internships are beneficial experiences that provide practical aspects of education difficult to convey in classrooms, but that doesn’t mean interns should be expected to work without compensation. The premise of an internship relies on an idea that the participant receives experience in a professional field. It’s similar to on-the-job training.

When 16-year-old me worked for minimum wage as a supermarket clerk, my training was paid. The level of work expected from me was minimal and my position was easily disposable. Workers are almost always paid to learn unskilled labor, so why should they not be paid to learn professional-level work?

My guess is that these organizations see a major economic opportunity: desperate college students. Juniors, seniors and recent graduates are starving for work that makes their degree feel worthwhile. Many of them will accept any job that makes them feel accomplished. And many are sold on the idea that working themselves to the grind during an internship will land them a cushy full-time position in the future.

We know it probably won’t, but sometimes it works out, and it’d be really nice if it worked out for us. Unpaid internships are increasingly common in liberal arts and communication fields, likely because companies understand that these majors are slightly more desperate for professional positions than their specialized peers in business and science.

Companies gain a lot from having an unpaid workforce, but it comes at the sacrifice of interns’ own well-being. Students who participate in unpaid internships must either work another job to pay bills or rely on external income sources – usually in the form of rich parents or uncles.

In this way, unpaid internships unfairly cater to well-off people who can afford them. Students from underprivileged or impoverished backgrounds face an immediate disadvantage later in their careers because of their inability to live without a paycheck. But this is not to say that unexperienced interns should be paid equally to the professional workers they shadow; that would be largely unfair to people who have spent years developing professional skills.

But interns should be paid something, even if it’s minimum wage. People deserve to be compensated for their time. If an employer expects work, the laborer should expect pay. College students should not be expected to pay thousands of dollars for years in classrooms and make no tangible income after breaking through the other side.

I highly advise that college students hold out for paid internships or skip unpaid internships altogether. Any company that offers unpaid internships does not value your time or contribution to its organization.

Companies that offer unpaid internships should rethink the way they conduct themselves and give more consideration to the lives of the people they employ.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 11, 2015 print edition of The Echo.

image via unomaha.edu

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