Unpaid internships have opened the doors for loads of students and young professionals. I have friends who interned at online publications and the biggest television production corporations and they’ll all say the same thing: “It was great experience. It was good for my resume.” Hey, I’ve had unpaid internships too and I agree that it was a great learning experience.
You know what would have been an even better learning experience? Getting paid for the hours of writing and work I managed to fit somewhere in my grueling class schedule.
By senior year, my schedule usually consisted of political science courses in the morning, journalism courses in the evening and anxiety attacks and spontaneous crying dashed here and there throughout the day. So at least getting financial compensation for the work I managed to do in that time span would have been nice. But for many students it would be more than nice, it would be a necessity. Luckily, I received a monthly transportation stipend on my DC SmarTrip card for my first internship, but most interns are fortunate to get anything beyond a couple of impressive lines on their resume.
Maybe this cynicism is why I’m not shedding a single, solitary tear after hearing that Condé Nast–the magazine publisher that owns magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ and The New Yorker– ended their internship program. They haven’t given an exact reason why yet, but the announcement comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed by two interns in June for being paid below minimum wage.
Some will argue that Condé Nast ending their internship program hurts students. Yeah, sure, it’ll hurt the students who would have loved an internship at Condé Nast. But maybe that could still be a reality if Condé Nast wanted to pay their interns more than a crummy stipend to live and work in the publishing industry in New York City.
Oh, is that asking too much?
See, this whole incident brings up a lot of important questions about the state of unpaid internships and the importance that they have for college students these days. At many universities, internships are a graduation requirement. Sure, the specifications surrounding these internship requirements vary from school to school, but at the end of the day, students have to find an internship that fits their schedule and garner up enough hours for it to actually count. But if any of you have looked for an internship in college, you’ll notice that most of them are unpaid.
Like I said, internships are an amazing way to get an inside look at a the professional field that you might want to peruse in the future. In no way am I claiming that it doesn’t hurt to meet the editor-in-chief of an amazing publication, talk to influential politicians, sit in on a meeting with a television producer of an Emmy award-winning show, or any of the other boons that come along with internship experience. Those are all invaluable resources that weren’t available to most students before us.
But here’s the problem: Not every student can afford to spend dozens of free hours out of their week doing unpaid work. So forcing students into a situation where they cannot obtain a degree until they agree to hours of skilled and usually unpaid labor in a professional environment feels wrong.
People can try to package internship experience in as much flowery language as they want. You know, fun buzzwords like connections (!), building networks (!), hands-on experience (!). But don’t be fooled into thinking that all those great things automatically replace the value of a paycheck. Those cool perks aren’t the reason why they aren’t paying you. You’re not getting paid because these companies just don’t want to pay you and they know that they can get away with it.
People like cheap labor, but they love free labor. At the end of the day, your internship is requiring you to do work and work is labor and labor that is valued is usually paid. Oh, and if you’re under the impression that unpaid internships are only a reality during undergrad, you’re wrong. Before I landed this awesome (paid) internship at Gurl.com, several internships that I was interested in were unpaid. These positions required me to be a college graduate and work for free…in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Uh, can I get a hell no?
Unpaid internships ultimately benefit people who can afford to have an unpaid internship. I know people who had to really hustle through school, pay their way with part-time jobs year-round just to afford tuition. They didn’t have the money to, instead, spend entire summers and semesters spending hours working for free in competitive environments. Yes, you can get a couple of hours of college credit, but that doesn’t really change the fact that we’re being forced to have unpaid jobs in order to graduate and compete. If you can’t even afford to pay for school, how important is that internship going to be anyway?
The entire concept of unpaid internships baffles my parents. They wonder why so many hours are spent doing unpaid work when most of it is usually equivalent to the amount of work done at an entry-level job when they were my age. Usually I can get very defensive and say “things are different now” whenever my parents don’t understand something that feels so commonplace to me. But this isn’t about how much time I spend on the internet or why it’s okay to rock runs in my stockings. This is about my livelihood and my future, and I actually think they have a reason to be baffled and concerned.
Unpaid internships breed a very harmful mindset: We start accepting the fact that people just don’t want to pay us. We see people who want to be paid for their work as presumptuous whiners who can’t just use their bootstraps to propel themselves up in this competitive world of ours. We start saying “I didn’t get paid when I was interning and I made it!” as if that justifies how messed up this system is.
But if we all agree that paid internships are ideal, why is anyone an advocate for unpaid ones? Why are we acting like it is too much to ask for companies and organizations to pay their interns? Why are we just accepting this greedy standard? At the very least, internships for students should have a reasonable stipend that pays for something like transportation or other expenses. But even that seems weak. If colleges want to make internships a graduation requirement, then they need to pressure corporations that offer internships to students to start paying their interns.
I’m sorry, but this isn’t charity work. This isn’t volunteering at the local animal shelter because you want to give the bunnies a nice home. This is about your future and you deserve to get some hands-on job experience and get paid at the same time.
Do you think that unpaid internships are unfair? Do you have any internship experiences you want to share? Tell us in the comments!