As demand for internships has skyrocketed with nearly every profession requiring some prior experience during high school and college, an explosion of unpaid internships have shaken up the labor market. It has become very evident that unpaid internships have tangible negative consequences on young people that the “gain important experience” mantra cannot overcome.
First, the root cause of several issues regarding unpaid internships derives from a basic economic imbalance with increasing demand for summer jobs far outpacing previous supply. This fact has created perverse incentives for businesses and managers of internship programs to exploit young workers by pushing them to perform more tasks, work longer hours and still be compensated with nothing. While this is obviously on face a growing problem with unpaid internships, this trend has caused the promise of “training while on the job” to be diminished as many employers no longer take this requirement of an unpaid internship seriously. Training comparable to a vocational school or academic institution is required by law for unpaid internships so the decline in this area is not only unfortunate but in violation with the law.
Additionally, unpaid internships put lower-income students at a disadvantage while privileging people who have the resources to sustain themselves absent an infusion of money from a summer job. In the era of skyrocketing college education prices, taking a summer off from earning money is infeasible for many worthy internship seekers. With internships becoming vital to eventual job offers, the system of unpaid internships in crucial positions (Senate, House of Representatives, federal government agencies, etc.) have made access to labor market harder and in opposition to the American ideal of equal opportunity for all. As a country, we strive to create social mobility and fair opportunities for all, yet unpaid internships perpetuate the opposite of the ideals we value.
Many would assume unpaid internships at least give those who were lucky enough to participate in one an upper-hand in landing a job later on in life. Well, that assumption may also be wrong. “For three years, the National Association of Colleges and Employers has asked graduating seniors if they’ve received job offers and if they’ve ever had paid and/or unpaid internships. Each year it has reached the same, depressing conclusion: while paid internships give students a distinct advantage over their peers in the search for full-time employment, unpaid internships are pretty much on-par with not having any internship at all.” This shocking information really puts a damper on every argument in favor of unpaid internships. If they are not paying students AND are failing to help graduates be any more likely to land a job, then it may be time to seriously re-evaluate the whole internship field and at least make some moderate reforms to avoid some of the problems mentioned previously. I am not calling for the end of unpaid internships but it seems like it is time to adjust how internships are given out in order to maximize benefits for students as well as companies.
Photo Credit: David R. Treble