The Price of Experience: Unpaid internships and the student job market
This week, the Statement Magazine published a series of essays examining the impact of unpaid internships on students of limited means. Scroll through this article to find links to this issue's pieces.
When we founded Affordable Michigan — formerly known as the Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Coalition — we were attempting to address a need that is twofold: An institutional need for University of Michigan policies that accommodate low-income students and a social need for low-income students to connect with one another and build organizational capacity. In our first semester as an organization, we have worked to pinpoint which aspects of the University’s rhetoric on socioeconomic inclusion are the most dissonant with how its policies and its distribution of resources actually impact the student population.
This brought us very quickly to the problems surrounding unpaid and poorly-paid internships, how the University provides funding and how many students are still left without the financial and community support they need. For many low-income and/or first-generation college students, the idea of working for free or next-to-nothing seems completely unintuitive. The experience, connections and resume bullet points unpaid internships provide do not pay the bills. In fact, they create bills. When considering the cost of working for free, covering living expenses and potentially moving to a large, expensive city for the duration of the internship, the completion of an unpaid internship becomes less a result of genuine merit and instead the product of supplementary funds and connections. This is especially troublesome considering the value entry-level positions in many fields place on unpaid internships completed while in college. College students (who are able to do so) complete these unpaid internships year after year because getting one’s foot in the door of their career is sometimes next to impossible without them.
The University’s $11 billion endowment makes it one of the wealthiest universities in the country, and programs such as the LSA Opportunity Hub, the Public Service Intern Program, the LSA Internship Fund and the internship funds that virtually every University school and department offer, attempt to provide both the institutional knowledge required to obtain an internship and the money necessary to complete one. Overall, University students can access far more resources than most when it comes to this type of support, and the scholarships and counselling available are a main reason students apply to universities like Michigan in the first place. However, as unpaid internships are one of the main ways not-rich students are excluded from certain careers, it is important to listen to students navigating this process to see if their needs are being met. We hope the following testimonies from Monica Kim, Lydia Murray and Zachary Tingley about the difficulties they have faced during the unpaid internship experiences despite being University students help to illuminate this problem.
Debt and resume bullet points - Zach Tingley
"Like many University of Michigan students, I am from the deep Midwest, in a district likely dubbed “Trump Country, USA” by coastal reporters. My father has worked in manufacturing his entire life. Unlike many of my peers, my parents didn’t go to college, nor are they in an income bracket to finance any of my college experience. Because of this, I wasn’t able to acquire a Capitol Hill internship by riding the coattails of my parents’ wealth or social capital, but my family’s working-class background drew me to public service."
Fighting for future interns' pay - Lydia Murray
"I knew that this internship would be unpaid when I was selected for it. I had worked for the year before with the goal of saving for the summer. I made a budget. I picked the cheapest housing I could find. So when I arrived in D.C., I felt relatively prepared to live frugally but ready to survive in the city. But I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of the D.C. world of unpaid internships."
Two jobs, one paycheck - Monica Kim
"For anyone who’s ever worked in food service or retail before, you’ll know that employers always schedule you for more hours than you asked for. And so it came as no surprise that Anthropologie scheduled me for more than 20 hours per week, sometimes creeping close to 30."
On campus, students find some support for unpaid internships - Andrea Perez
"On campus, University of Michigan offices such as the University Career Center and the Opportunity Hub attempt to facilitate ways for students to take advantage of unpaid internships with a vast array of programming."