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Career > Work

Pay The Interns: The Cycle of Elitism That Prioritizes Those Who Can Work For Free

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCLA chapter.

Companies love unpaid interns. They just have someone available to do all of the tasks they don’t want to do. And they get it for free. To everyone else, however, unpaid internships aren’t that great. The thing about unpaid internships is that it’s really only possible to get one if you are able to work for free—if you have the means to not have a source of income. I will say that many unpaid interns could have second jobs to help with finances, but that’s really not the point. 

According to Forbes, an internship while in college doubles a graduate’s chance of being engaged (involved and happy) at work. Those who had had an internship were also 15% more likely to be working full-time for an employer than those who had not. However, Forbes also mentioned a study on college student internships throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that reported that 42% of online internships and 35% of in-person internships were not paid positions. They also found that 53% of student internships overall were secured through “personal networks.”

These unpaid internships unequivocally favor richer students, especially those who can utilize familial connections to gain employment (whether unpaid or not). It leaves those without these means at a disadvantage when it comes to future employment. There is also not only an economic divide being perpetuated here but also a racial and gendered one as well. The National Association of Colleges and Employers did a study in 2019 of 4,000 seniors across 470 universities and colleges and found that white, male students with parents who had a college degree disproportionately participated in paid internships. Black students only made up 6.6% of those surveyed, but were underrepresented in those with paid internships (6%) and were overrepresented in those with unpaid internships (7.3%). Furthermore, Hispanic and Latinx students were least likely to have graduated having done an internship, more than a quarter of first-generation students had never interned, and women made up 81% of unpaid interns. 

Unpaid internships are just another roadblock that maintains the cycle of elitism and nepotism that goes into gaining employment. Additionally, not only are unpaid internships unfair, but they are completely exploitative. As of January 2018, a company only has to prove that an intern “benefited more” from the internship than the company did in order to not pay them. Not only do these internships often require a significant amount of time, effort and work, but they can also cost money for the student participating in them. There are transportation costs, living expenses, groceries and other daily necessities involved in addition to potential application fees and other expenses associated with the internship. 

Many college students can’t afford this and it is absolutely unethical to only reward those who have the financial means to partake in unpaid work. The campaign “Pay the Interns” is looking to remedy this problem and end unpaid internships altogether and the nonprofit organization Pay Our Interns calls on Senators to back paid State Department internships. They are not the only ones calling for an end to unpaid internships, but both are worth looking into, not only to gain information about the topic and campaigns but also to get involved and join. Valuable work and life experience should not just be a privilege given to those who can afford it; it should be available and accessible to all students and give everyone a more equitable opportunity to succeed. 

Leila is from New York City and is a second-year Statistics major at UCLA. When she's not looking for article ideas for HC UCLA, she can be found at the beach with a book or finding fun places around LA!