Internships are practically a requirement of many industries, and an only way into the industry for many undergraduates. An internship can give you connections in your chosen industry, experience in the field you want to spend your life in, and help you figure out what you really want to commit yourself to. On the other hand, internships can be stressful and unpleasant, especially if an intern feels like they are doing all the grunt work for none (or very little) pay.
Many internships now are unpaid, which creates a barrier of accessibility to many people who need an internship for experience in order to get a future job. For students who come from lower income families, they often have a summer job (or two) to help pay for college and sometimes even support their family. These people cannot afford to quit these jobs for three months to take an unpaid internship. Basically, if you do not have financial stability from someone else, an unpaid internship probably isn’t a realistic option. This was my situation during my undergraduate education. Both of my parents were disabled, so during summers I worked to earn money for my schoolbooks and to take care of them. There would have been no way for me to take an unpaid internship.
There are many opinion articles about how unpaid internships create inequality, and only allows those who are already privileged to succeed. But there is still hope for those of us who do not come from privileged backgrounds, as their are paid internship options out there (though they may be harder to find).
But is an unpaid internship legal, let alone worthwhile? Well, it turns out that an unpaid internship should function very differently from a paid one, according to the US Department of Labor. They have 6 requirements for an internship to be unpaid, but the most important ones are:
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
In nonlegal jargon, this means that if you are doing work an employee would do, you MUST be paid for it. If you are being an asset to the company by the use of your skills, they need to pay you for it. Keep this in mind the next time you consider an internship. An unpaid internship should be observation and shadowing, not work.
Before you resign yourself to an unpaid internship (or the inability to take one), know that unpaid internships are not as helpful as they are cracked up to be. According to Fortune magazine, a study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed that paid interns were both more likely to land a full-time job after graduation and make more money than their unpaid counterparts.
Unpaid internships are an international problem, and they shouldn’t become the standard. Yes, it is easier for a business to take on an intern without paying them, but this means that so many students won’t have the option to learn with that company. I don’t have a immediate solution to this problem, except to stand up for those who are marginalized by this issue to the best abilities, and to keep fighting for economic opportunities for all.
Have you had an unpaid internship? Did it feel worthwhile? Have you ever felt disadvantaged by not having an internship? Tell us in the comments!