Unpaid Internships and Inequality

Many argue that unpaid internships are a necessary sacrifice to get experience as an undergrad. It is justified as a necessary evil that will be rewarded with a job if one works hard enough. However, statistics have shown that unpaid internships do little if anything to boost your chances of getting a job. In fact, there is only a small difference in the job opportunities for a student with unpaid internship experience and the chances for a student with no experience. The chances of a student with unpaid internship experience getting a job was a mere 43.9 percent, compared to 36.6 percent chance of a student with no internship experience. Those with paid internships had a whopping 72 percent chance of being offered a job and were offered higher starting salaries.

Furthermore, universities such as Northwestern itself have internship requirements, as is the case with Medill. It requires the student to pay tuition for the experience. In the past, money was actually paid from the site to Northwestern, who gave students a small stipend of about $600 to $1,200. This was far under minimum wage. Since then the school has been pushing sites to pay interns minimum wage, but tuition is still paid for this experience, with many students going into debt. Some companies offer academic credit to compensate for the lack of pay, but this only forces students to pay tuition, thus not relieving financial strain of students.

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Even with a paid internship, however, there is no guarantee of full-time work. The same internships that took on a student as an unpaid worker may very well reject them for a full-time role. Also, free work can devalue the effort students put into their jobs. If they took on work for free, why pay them adequately for a full-time job? Another issue that arises is how do we, as students, know what we should properly be paid for? Desperate to get experience, we often feel compelled to take free work – those who can afford it, at least.

Internships in themselves are hard for lower-income people to afford, and so it creates a vicious cycle of inequality. People from wealthier families often can take on unpaid work, but a student who has to work for their family cannot afford such a luxury, thus denying them an opportunity to not only gain experience in their field but, most importantly, build networks. A whopping number of jobs are found through word of mouth rather than job postings. What this means is in many fields, especially journalism, it is more about who you know then it is about actual experience. And of course, those of wealthier backgrounds will have easier access to the key employers than the lower class.

It is time to question the prevalence of unpaid internships and their hollow promise of gainful employment. Failure to do so just allows systemic inequalities to remain unchallenged.