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Unpaid Internships: Is Free Labor Worth The Experience?

In high school, you’re expected to be the captain of at least one sports team, make sure you have at least 200 hours of community service, and nail the SAT. Once you finally get into college, you constantly hear professors and advisors saying you will need at least three internships to simply get a chance at having a job after graduation to help you pay off your student loans. They say experience is priceless, but I beg to differ.

There are plenty of opportunities for college students to get into the working world, but a majority of them are unpaid. An unpaid internship is, more simply put, an exchange of services between an employer and the intern. The intern receives valuable work experience in a field they are interested in pursing while the employer gets a free employee. The system in theory does not sound so ludacris. Of course, how do you define what “experience” is?  

The Labor Department defines the work an intern does as a position that “must among other things, be similar to training offered in a school setting and be performed for the benefit of the intern rather than the employer and not nudge aside that of existing employees.” Why should an employer take the time to train, teach, or mentor an employee and also hand him or her a paycheck?

The problem is that measuring how valuable an experience is to someone is nearly impossible. So many of my classmates at American University currently have, or have held at least some sort of unpaid position, myself included. Some of my peers spent hours a week doing coffee runs, sorting mail, and plugging numbers into excel sheets. Sprinkled in between these tasks were little conferences they got to take notes on or paperwork deliveries to the CEO.  Well worth it of course to be able to put that shiny “intern” label on their resumes.

Not only are interns not getting paid for their work, but they are often having to pay to do it. A lot of internships are treated the same as a college course. I received academic credit for my unpaid internship this past fall. I didn’t get paid, but I got three credits towards my degree. Except for the fact that I paid $10,000 for my three credits and American University didn’t lift a finger.

I recognize that there are unpaid internships out there that provide thousands of college students with valuable skills, valuable professional connections, and even future careers. But of course it is only for those students who can afford too take on an unpaid position. Interning, taking classes, and trying to make money is nearly impossible. If you cannot afford to take on an unpaid position, then you will have a much more difficult time trying to improve your resume or your networking skills. This makes the path to success extremely hard to those who cannot afford the system.  

Maybe Congress could take on this dilemma by getting their unpaid interns to look into it. The Atlantic came out with a study in 2012 identifying that only 35 of the 100 senators in the United States paid their interns. The people with the power to change the system are benefitting from it. The romantic “American dream” is not as easily attainable when you analyze the true cost of an “experience” for the average middle class college student.

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