Are Unpaid Internships Exploitative to College Students?

Written by Daisy Murguia

I was browsing through Twitter one afternoon when I noticed a tweet that said, “Unpaid internships should be illegal” repeated seven times. The tweet reached over 80,000 retweets. If you search “Unpaid internships should be illegal” in the Twitter browser, you’ll find thousands of tweets with similar sentiments. Some argue that unpaid internships are a rite of passage, that we must stop complaining and just do them or we won’t secure jobs. Others say that not getting paid for your work is inherently classist and at the very least, impossible for low-income students. While internships are valuable learning experiences, unpaid internships are not very fair to college students.

I imagine that men in tailored suits sat around a table and pondered: How can we legally get free labor? Who can we exploit in such a manner? Looking at the eager and inexperienced college student, the answer was obvious.

As college students, we’re expected to complete internships before we graduate. We are told that we will go nowhere if we don’t have experience. Without the experience of internships, we won’t secure jobs, or so we are repeatedly told. As a literary journalism major, I knew that internships would be make or break for my college career. In a writing career, it is all about practice and learning from as many different people as you can. When I began my search for internships, I noticed that many were unpaid and that the most intriguing ones were off-campus. As a college student without a car, I knew that the only way for me to gain the experience I needed before graduation was to do on-campus internships. I did the best I could, with the resources available to me on campus. I did not do a flashy internship, but I did what I was taught: searched for internships, completed them, and gained valuable knowledge while not losing sight of my schoolwork. 

While internships in general are valuable and teach us various skills, it’s a bit unsettling to work a set amount of hours a week and not get paid. Just considering ever rising tuition prices, shouldn’t these companies be more inclined to pay us? Despite students’ financial insecurity, unpaid internships for college students have become even more prevalent. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an unpaid internship is legal if it passes the “primary beneficiary test.” This test includes seven factors such as: both parties acknowledge that there will be no compensation, the internship must provide the intern with training similar to that of an educational environment, the intern’s work cannot displace the work of a paid employee, and that the intern is aware that there is no “entitlement” to a paid job once the internship has been completed. These factors assume that students will gain something from internships. But, it’s hard to take the primary beneficiary test seriously because it lacks specificity and leaves much to the company’s discretion. If a college student put in multiple hours of work a week to a company, but the company claimed that it was mutually beneficial (even if it clearly wasn’t) then how can the “inexperienced” student respond to that?

The reason that students will put themselves through an unpaid internship is because of their  desire to gain valuable knowledge and to make themselves marketable for a career post-graduation. Though there are students willing to do unpaid internships, there is no guarantee that it will help them in the long run. A study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows that the job offer rate for graduates who had done paid, for-profit internships was 72% versus 44% for graduates who had done unpaid, for-profit internships. A student does an unpaid internship in the hopes that it will lead to a full-time job, but there is never any guarantee that any of those things will happen.

Jenna Berry, a fourth year at UC Irvine, said that internships should pay for the work students put into companies. She once applied to an internship where she would be expected to launch products for them. She said, “I applied for an internship and I had gone in for the interview. It was two people, the owner of the company, and one of his directors, and they were looking at my resume and saying ‘Yeah, you’re definitely qualified and professional.’” Though Jenna says that it felt good to be acknowledged, it didn’t sit right with her that the internship was unpaid. The company would expect Jenna to do the internship without pay, and in the end, there would be no guarantee of a job.

Jenna said,“They offered me the internship, and I told them I’d think about it. I had to evaluate my worth: do I want to show up to this company every week for twenty hours and not get paid? I ultimately said to myself that it didn’t feel right. I listened to my intuition.” In the end, Jenna chose not to accept the unpaid internship.

Nara Alice Avakian, a sociology major, said, “I’ve done two unpaid internships, and one of them I really liked because I felt like there was an equal exchange of what they were getting out of it and what I was getting out of it. It was for KUCI News, it was really nice, I gained a lot of new skills from it, and I gained a lot of resources from them too.” 

There are different kinds of internships, there are some where there is a mutual exchange, and both parties- the student and the company- gain something from the experience. Sometimes, this exchange is more one-sided, and the company gains free labor while not providing any training or teaching any useful skills to the college student. 

Nara adds, “I’m in another internship now and the exchange is unequal in that I feel like I’m putting in a lot of work and not necessarily gaining too much out of it. I’ve had to spend my own funds for this internship in terms of paying for my own food when we travel and I’m not being compensated for any of that.”

Perhaps it’s a different story if an unpaid internship is on-campus because most of us have to be on campus at some point. It is more doable, but it is still not preferable. But, the issue arises when the money is there, but companies choose to exploit students who need to put something down on their resumes. College students typically have more to lose than gain in this exchange. It is easier for a company to not worry about a salary, or benefits, or having any sort of “real” commitment to the college student. Unpaid internships are essentially a free test-run for the company, where they will lose nothing, and gain everything.

Low-income college students do not have the time for unpaid internships when they are already struggling financially. If they do take on an unpaid internship, then they will have to take out loans or have a part-time job in addition to being a full-time student. Some will argue that unpaid internships are inherently classist because they are financially inaccessible, but we can all conclude that at the very least, unpaid internships are not realistic. 

When we think about labor history in this country, it is obvious that there is an obsession with free or underpaid labor. It was only in 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then seen as radical, the law created the right to a minimum wage and prohibited child labor. Perhaps in the future people will look back to this time, 2020 and wonder why unpaid internships even existed, and why they were seen as so vital and necessary for a college student’s success. 

There are people who claim that in unpaid internships you are paid with experience, but when has experience ever paid the bills? Whether or not you decide to do an unpaid internship, it is clear that low standards have to be set by students willing to take the internship on. The most you can get out of an internship is experience and new skills, and the worst is that you learn nothing, waste your time, and don’t get paid for your hard work. It is up to the student to decide if they are willing to sacrifice their time and effort for an internship that does not compensate them for their work, and to contemplate if they are truly the “primary beneficiary” in this exchange. 

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