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The Travel Diaries: The Controversy of Unpaid Internship in the US

By Guest Contributor: Shauna Vert


Internships in America are a funny, funny thing.

For someone like me, they’re a sweet deal–but I’m not the norm. I’m a Canadian co-op student, not an American, so I am subject to far tamer tuition fees. I’m halfway through a degree, not finished with my education and looking to start a career. I’m subject to mobility scholarships (uOttawa wins this round), I get a bit of advertising revenue from my blog, and am never short on employment vis-a-vis summer jobs, part-time work and paid work terms. I can afford an unpaid work-term.

Like I said, this is not the norm.

This is not the norm because the system does not allow for it to be the norm. Because American students pay some $20,000 tuition a year, only to wind up in a job market that offers very few actual “Jobs.”  For many of these incredibly bright, talented, and well-educated degree-holders, their first entry level job is unpaid. Sometimes, their second entry level job is unpaid, too.

And so they are at a crux–one foot trying desperately to hold open the door to their career, the other knee-deep in debt, doubts, and stress.  It’s not ideal.  In fact, it’s not even sustainable. After the three or four years of overpriced education, they are thrown into a work world which will only take them if they work for free.  They pay their massive rent, transportation, and medical bills with money made from part-time minimum wage gigs, trying to support their way through enough internships to maybe, someday, perhaps, if the economy looks up get an interview for a capital-J Job.

Maybe. Someday.

Until then, they work harder than I’ve seen anyone work before. They contribute an incredible amount to organizations across the country.  They do it because they care. They do it because they have been raised with a startling amount of work ethic (Americans are, I have learned, a truly phenomenal people in this way).

…And they do it because if they don’t, someone else will.

Oh, internships are the same as any other Job in the obvious ways: long application processes, detailed interviews, reference scrutiny.  Excitement upon selection. Full-time hours with major projects.

Just, no salary. No benefits. No commitment of any kind between intern and employer.  At the end of the internship period, no one is obligated to offer you a job. You are owed nothing for your years of free labour besides work experience and an honest reference letter.

That’s just the way it is. Not just in the not-for-profit sector, but in every sector. There are only so many jobs, after all.  Everyone has to pump up their resumes by donating some of their time–even years of their time. That’s just the way it is. It’s how you break into the communications, arts, and humanities fields work in America (and, don’t be fooled, in some parts of Canada too).  

But what if that wasn’t “just the way it is”? What if labour laws were truly fair…and truly followed? What if people were required to offer at least a stipend for their interns, interns who are just as dedicated and hardworking as other staff?

As I experience the land of American interns “on the hill” and hear more and more stories, I find myself wondering what would happen if interns weren’t scared.  And don’t be deceived, my friends, interns are scared.  They are terrified of becoming just another statistic in some presentation about the “Lost Generation.” They are worried that they will never find a job they love, or even like, which will actually pay them. The ones with multiple degrees wonder if they are overqualified; The ones with “just” an undergraduate degree worry that they are under-qualified.

If they weren’t scared, I’m sure many of these young people would not be interns in the first place.

They work for free because it is their one-and-only shot at maybe, just maybe, being noticed in the biz. It’s their one shot at being picked for a job interview–they know there are always close to a thousand of applicants. It’s their one shot at standing out, so they can get that scholarship and finally go to grad school.

“Making it” in America no longer means working your way up a visible ladder. It means working for free in hopes that maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch a glimpse of that ladder.

Maybe. Someday. No guarantees.

Interns are most afraid of is losing their shot at that ladder. If they were to speak up against the system, they could sabotage even that. It’s all part of the game.  People come into an internship to network, to open doors, to make connections.  To bring forth a complaint against the very program they depend on to start up their (maybe, someday, no guarantees) careers would be professional suicide.

It doesn’t matter if the system is unfair. It doesn’t matter if you can’t pay your rent. It doesn’t matter if it never leads to a Job. It’s still your only shot.

And so, the unpaid internship system sticks–even though it is likely illegal, probably immoral, and definitely causing massive financial and personal damage to an entire generation.

As I said, the internship system works for me. It works for a few others I have met, too,  If an organization has room for a student like myself to come in and do some experiential learning, I welcome the sponsorship. I welcome any responsibility they are willing to give that student. There is nothing malicious about the not-for-profit organization for which I intern. This is not a statement about them. This is a statement about the incredible people I have met, the incredible work they do–and how very deserving they are of a national-level system that requires fair and adequately compensated entry-level employment practices in the United States.

After all, just imagine the kind of work these amazing young people could do for the country if they were able to get 8 hours of sleep, eat properly, and live without the stress of an unpaid worker.

Darling, darling America, my conclusion is this: When your young people work THIS hard, when they are THIS smart, when they are THIS MUCH unavoidably in debt…they should be paid for the first Job they get in their field. And they should not be afraid to stand up and say it, either.

Photo credits:
Samantha Polzin

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