Why we need to rethink unpaid internships

Shae Slaughter

When it comes to graduating and establishing a career, prior experience is becoming more and more important. It seems that even entry-level jobs with entry-level pay are looking for candidates with one to two years of work experience. Fortunately, internships are a great way to acquire some of the experience that employers are looking for. Some majors and minors even require one or more internships to complete your degree. The only problem with that is that some of these internships are unpaid. 

People always say that experience is invaluable, but that isn’t exactly true when an internship has to take the place of a paying job. Of course, furthering your education is important, but students still have bills, including the ones going toward tuition. For students from low-income backgrounds in particular, working without pay simply isn’t an option. It is downright exploitative to require experience that you can only get if you work for free.

Recently, the U.S. Labor Department passed new guidelines that relax the requirements for employers to pay their interns. In a country that prides itself on being economically advanced, it is ironic that we so publicly encourage unpaid labor. An internship is a learning experience, but it is also a job. After all, the whole point is “on-the-job experience.” So, why does minimum wage not apply?

These newly passed regulations state that interns don’t need to be paid if the work they’re doing is more beneficial to them than it is to the company. This seems like an odd divider for an activity that was created for the betterment of the intern in the first place. To me, it also sounds like something that is hard to define or prove. For example, sorting mail and delivering coffee are rather menial tasks that many companies could positively spin as being for the betterment of their interns when in reality they are still just free labor. 

Of course, students could refuse unpaid internships, but sometimes there is no other option. If an internship is required to graduate or to get hired after college, how can students really say no? Ideally, every student would be able to find an on-the-job experience that pays, but if we don’t require that pay, there is really no guarantee. 

One of the biggest disadvantages of unpaid internships is their end result. Though students feel obligated to accept them, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that an unpaid internship gave little-to-no advantage when entering the workforce. That means that the free labor students are performing now might not even help them out later in life, making it even more unfair. 

Learning outside of the classroom is vital to being successful, but we already pay for our education. We shouldn’t also pay to work. Interns help companies expand and become more profitable, so they shouldn’t be shouldering the cost of giving away their valuable time for free. Internships only have value when they can actually help students grow and succeed.