As college students, most of us are all too familiar with the unsettling realization that summer no longer means endless ice cream trucks and bike rides. With only a few short summers to squeeze impressive experiences onto your resume before leaving the safety of your university and diving into the job market, most students all sweat the same thing before summer even starts: internships.
Internships are a wonderful way to experience real-world job opportunities, expand knowledge on a specific field or position and experiment for a few months with your future career path. Along with the expectation of the wonderful growth you will endure while romanticizing being a working adult, however, comes the upsetting reality of being unpaid.
A lack of payment for work done over an entire summer brings the stress of paying for housing if the internship is located in a different city, finding the transportation necessary to get to an office and scheduling the coffee chats necessary for properly networking with each connection you are trying to make outside of the office. As young, hard-working students, we feel it’s necessary to prove ourselves in these positions; but do supervisors really care if they aren’t even paying for that labor? Has the system been set up to focus on flashy terms like “experience” and “networking” in order to distract from the reality that these companies are now taking advantage of the tradition to not pay employees?
Though the Fair Labor Standards Act was created to help ensure workers are paid and treated fairly, interns are not considered employees. This means these standards from the Act are inapplicable to internships, so there is no legal obligation to pay interns.
The reality of not being paid for hard work is a big enough pill to swallow on its own. However, the real issue is that some students can still afford this opportunity. Some students have the ability to spend their precious summertime working for unpaid internships over a paid job and/or can move to a new city and pay additional rent for their summer stay. But a lot of students cannot.
Normalizing unpaid internships drives a deeper wedge between these students of different socioeconomic statuses and only further propels those that are from privileged backgrounds to succeed through the unique opportunities that internships bring. Those who cannot afford these opportunities are left behind with less experience to help them in future career paths. Critically, those of us who can afford these opportunities are partially to blame.
Students are well aware of the cyclical, frustrating concept of demanding work or research experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. Only students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds can choose to get the experience at the cost of the job. Not only is equal opportunity harmed by this, but diversity is decreased in these fields and the top economic tier. Most of the students that can afford to work for free come from similar affluent backgrounds and will continue down the same career paths to create a homogenous, diversity-deprived industry. These internships also occur most frequently during college years, meaning that students also possess the burden of paying for school. More students of lower socioeconomic status need to worry about paying for school, not just paying for the costs that an internship in a new city would bring them. With salaries typically starting at $15,000 higher for those with previous internship experience, the wealth gap only continues to grow as students from more privileged economic positions earn more money as they continue down their career path.
However, the gap in the employment rate for those having held an unpaid internship and those with no internship experience at all is marginal. Additionally, there is little proof that having an unpaid internship will increase any employment opportunities over compensated positions as unpaid internships actually have a lower chance of leading to a job than a paid internship. This is most likely due to the fact that unpaid interns can be stuck with monotonous, brainless tasks.
Prioritizing payment for every internship would benefit any student seeking experience before heading into the job market. At the very minimum, students should be pushing their state legislature to require internships to compensate interns with college credit, similar to states like California. University of Michigan students should know that we also have LSA scholarship opportunities to assist with summer internship costs. I encourage students to explore what the University of Michigan has to offer and take full advantage of the resources provided.
Unpaid internships may seem unfair at the surface level — young students are working hard and not getting paid — but the issues go much deeper than that. Students accept them for the belief of networking and opportunity. When students or individuals in positions of privilege continue to accept a culture of unpaid internships, they hurt themselves and their fellow peers who are seeking out similar positions. Changing the culture around unpaid internships and demanding monetary payment will benefit students of all different backgrounds.
Dimitra Colovos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.