"Okay, but is it Paid?": An Inside Look into Unpaid Internships

One of the biggest benefits of living in the D.C. Metro area as a college student is the amount of internships and the accessibility to them. They’re just a Metro ride away in the nation’s capital, full of opportunity and experience to gain from real professionals in every field imaginable. However, the problem is that many (if not most) of these internships are unpaid and do not compensate their interns that work almost 20+ hour weeks. The only real compensation is college, which is great, but college credit does not pay bills. The problem here is equating college with financial value that can be used to buy food, pay rent and fund travel expenses.

To a large majority of the college students experience working nearly full time and not being paid, all while still having bills to pay and the expectation of balancing their credit load. There have been multiple articles written on the legality of unpaid internships. This is a piece on the discrimination that unpaid internships have towards those with lower socioeconomic status and how they target students that come higher income families while neglecting those who come from a lower working class, as well as possible solutions to the problem. This discrimination leads to the repeat of the cycle of the people with a higher status moving up the corporate ladder and those with a lower financial status continue to struggle and work twice as hard, if not more, due to a break in the system.

An internship is a temporary position within a company that ranges anywhere from 3 to 6 months, marketed towards recent graduates or current degree-seeking college students with an unofficial slight promise of a job opportunity at the company in the near future. Internships are a great resume builder, offer extensive amounts of experience to be gained and the positions are offered throughout the year. However with the internships being unpaid they can only attract those who are economically stable and are able to go 3 to 6 months without having any income. Not everyone can take those opportunities, especially with the large amount of student debt that has been piling up in the past 20 years. In a Forbes Article, “According to Make Lemonade, there are more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. alone.” In 2016 on average, every student in that graduating class owed $37,172  in student loan debt. There is no possible way for recent grads to accept internships with no pay, all while still having to make loan payments that begin shortly after graduation.

Via Pixabay

In an article titled “The Class Ceiling” by Liz Bernier, she quotes Ross Perlin, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based author of Intern Nation, about the phenomenon of unpaid internships while calling them a way that companies “developed a training and recruitment program” and a way to “capture some of the best young talent.”  However, it is now becoming more and more of an expectation to get into the workforce, which creates a “barrier of entry for many.” One can put together that not everyone has the same opportunity to take these amazing position, and if they do, they are working part time on the side.

Investopedia supports the claim of discrimination and barriers that unpaid internships create:

“[Unpaid internships] raise the question of equal access to opportunity. It seems that they tend to close off opportunities for minority applicants or people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds since high-quality and prestigious internships tend to favor the students/interns who come from affluent or relatively wealthy families and can afford to work for free. This results in depriving the less socioeconomically fortunate students of such opportunities, and it promotes greater inequality by having the top economic tier becoming less and less diverse.”     

After conducting a survey that was distributed to George Mason University students, I found that:

51 people responded

29 of respondents were freshman

5 were sophomores

10 were juniors

7 were seniors.

23.53%  said they have taken an unpaid internship in the past and 8.49% said they would do it again.

However, 54.90% said that there were factors that stopped them from taking an unpaid internship. Beyond that, 29 people said that the “lack of pay” was the reason that stopped them from taking an internship.

There should not being anything stopping someone from being able to gain experience in a field that they wish.

A study done by Natalie Bacon titled UNPAID INTERNSHIPS: THE HISTORY, POLICY, AND FUTURE IMPLICATIONS OF "FACT SHEET #71,  The director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University stated that he "sees definitive evidence that the number of unpaid internships is mushrooming-fueled by employers' desire to hold down costs and students' eagerness to gain experience for their careers. Employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford's job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago."'

Via Pixabay

Companies have recently faced charges against the maltreatment and underpayment of their interns, if they are even being paid at all. Publication company Conde Nast was notorious for their several lawsuits from their interns that shut down their internship program all together.

In the same study “ UNPAID INTERNSHIPS: THE HISTORY, POLICY, AND FUTURE IMPLICATIONS OF "FACT SHEET #71” states the qualifications that an internship has to fall under to be considered legal if unpaid:

“[1] [t]he training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school; [2] [t]he training is for the benefit of the trainee; [3] [t]he trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation; [4] [t]he employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded; [5] [t]he trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and [6] [t]he employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.”

However, this is not the solution. This only decreases the chance that recent graduates have in order to get their foot through the door at a company they potentially want to work for. “I’m disappointed on behalf of all future interns as well,” said Rosana Lai, 21, a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who is currently an intern at Glamour. “We’re no longer going to have that foot in the door.”

Daniela Rambal, a senior at George Mason University, gives her insight on her experience in an unpaid internships and how she managed during the time she was not paid.  “I struggled with my financial situation a lot during that time because I had to work as many hours as I could at my other job at a restaurant to make ends meet. This had an effect on my health and well-being because I was still doing a full-time workload in school and working full-time between both jobs. This actually caused me to end up in the hospital towards the end of the semester due to exhaustion and low-blood sugar. I’m still paying for medical bills related to this incident to this day, over a year later.”

Majoring in Communication with a minor in Sports Management, Rambal recalls that she did enjoy working there, gained experience and would do an internship again under specific circumstances. “I would do another unpaid internship, but only for the firm I worked for/a company whose work really interests me or for a supervisor like the one I had at the time.”

Via Instagram

Eva Batts, also a Communication major, has a strong opinion on unpaid internships “They’re [Unpaid internships] built for people who have disposable income and for those who can afford to not work for more than three months at a time.” Read her full interview here.

Photo courtesy of author

So what’s the solution? What should college students do? Should they do anything? Does the system need changing?

Well, the answer is yes. The system is now adjusted to exploit young professionals who just want experience and their foot in the door, especially in competitive fields. What is the solution?

One of them is obvious; Implementing stricter guidelines when it comes to evaluating if an unpaid internship qualifies to be unpaid according to the FLSA. This would mean fining those who do not abide by those guidelines and are essentially exploiting their interns.  

The second solution could be to award a stipend to students that have a specific GPA and have received an internship offer in their field. This could be a stipend that could cover at least the cost of transportation to and from the internship.

This is a problem that college that students are facing every year, being overworked and unpaid. This is something that can be fixed as long as someone is constantly bringing up the conversation about the topic.