Sellers: Immoral Unpaid Internships

by Emily Sellers | 11/2/14 7:16pm

Internships — and the pressure to land as many prestigious ones as possible — are constantly on college students’ minds. However, in our quest to find them, many of us settle for underpaid or unpaid positions. I wonder how many of us ask ourselves if this is a morality we want to implicitly endorse and a phenomenon in which we are content to take part. Last summer, I took an underpaid internship in an effort to grow intellectually and add the precious line to my resume. Though I feel that I achieved both of those things, my experience taught me that “invaluable” internships impose a heavy price. In order to make myself seem attractive to future employers, I contributed to a corrupt practice that upholds classist systems, disadvantages many young people and affirms corporate voraciousness.

I understand why businesses, particularly non-profits and small firms, hire underpaid or unpaid interns. Oftentimes these organizations do not have enough money to finance an inexperienced worker. However, it is important to recognize the societal implications of such a practice. Unpaid internships undeniably shrink the applicant pool to those who likely benefit from privileged positions: namely, people who can afford to finance themselves and those who go to an elite school that can provide internship funding. If businesses require internships to get desirable jobs and if those internships are only available to privileged classes, “equality of opportunity/access” becomes devoid of any practical meaning.

By participating in this system as an unpaid intern, I was complicit in a scheme that (1) requires young people with no bargaining power to subsidize corporations, (2) exploits labor by pretending that it is not valued as is, (3) exacerbates the income gap, (4) disadvantages lower socioeconomic classes and (5) limits the work force’s accessibility to the privileged. Though I do not entirely blame myself or the company for which I interned, the setup itself is corrupt, and both companies and interns should demand change.

A possible objection is that internships offer valuable training that could not be taught in the classroom. Perhaps this is fair. As a proponent of a liberal arts education (as opposed to technical schools), I do not think it is the place of higher education to prepare students for work in a particular field. However, I do expect employers to recognize the cognitive skills that higher education instills. That many jobs require a bachelor’s degree is evidence that many employers place stock in college education, and it is not unreasonable to ask them to act on that faith. Cognitive skills also allow for on-the-job training that could blend productive work and job-specific training. If Target pays its employees for training, so should other organizations.

Further, it is irrelevant that fields that typically institute internships are more “prestigious” ones like journalism and government work — exploitation is exploitation, whether the person being exploited is a child in a textile mill in the 1900s or a 20-something in a startup today. If the labor contract is not free from undue coercion, and the two parties do not have roughly equal bargaining power, then it is not a just system.

Interns might be “indispensable” for businesses, as per a Center for Professional Development lecture last Friday, but that should not be our only consideration in thinking about the morality of our current internship culture. Unpaid internships only help free-riding businesses and the elites that can afford to take them. Companies place the burden on us as young people and on our colleges, and we should not be willing to carry it.

Though I understand the tricky place the College plays in this struggle, I ask administrators and students alike to demand more from prospective employers. A price cannot be put on respect and value, but demanding free labor from those who are not free to make an actual choice reduces the dignity of work and exploits the powerless.