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Unpaid Internships: Exploitation or Opportunity?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

As university students, many of us are familiar with the yearly internship hunt. Internships within your field of study are great for gaining experience and provide a line on your resume that will likely set you apart from other applicants for the same job. For many students, internships are either required as part of the degree or strongly recommended before graduating. Unfortunately, not only are paid internships uncommon to come across, but they are also highly competitive.

As part of my program requirements, I need to complete an internship before graduation. Thankfully, a placement coordinator is there to help find potential internship sites, but I still need to apply and compete against other students for the local and more reputable locations.  

Finding an organization to accept me as an intern isn’t a big concern, but managing a full-time, eight months long unpaid internship is my biggest concern. The more I think about this internship, the more frustrated I become. Of course, I’m excited to enter the field and gain some real-world experience, but unpaid internships take advantage of young professionals and disregard our need for income. Although internships are mandatory for many students, we still need to pay tuition for the course to receive credit towards our academic transcript. Not to mention the miscellaneous fees (Student union buildings, support fees, etc.) that we are required to continue paying when we are not even allowed on campus. Not only am I not getting eight months of income, but I’m paying thousands to the university throughout the internship period, at an outside organization. Internships need pay, not course credit. Many students can’t afford to spend months doing full-time work without being financially compensated, especially during the pandemic. These same students are enrolled full-time and work part- or full-time to support themselves financially with tuition and rent. 

The problem is that unpaid internships are entirely legal and popularly offered by many corporations and organizations. Unpaid internships create an opportunity gap that benefits students from comfortable socio-economic backgrounds, while the other equally hardworking lower-income students can’t afford to accept an unpaid opportunity. The typical defence for unpaid internships is justified by the payment of valuable experience. 

Besides the obvious and unfavourable factors of an unpaid internship, accepting the norm of organizations offering unpaid internships creates future job search difficulties. Too often, there are many entry-level job positions requiring applicants to have years of experience and a broad skill set to apply for a job that pays barely above minimum wage. By then, that isn’t truly an entry-level job anymore. The real entry-level jobs that offer previous experience have been replaced by unpaid internships, making it difficult to get hired by an organization without doing any unpaid work. Many educated graduate students can’t compete for the same job position with others who had the luxury of affording to complete an unpaid internship. 

Various organizations genuinely cannot afford to pay their interns, and that’s fine. However, it’s unfair to market a placement as an unpaid internship position rather than what is a volunteer position. Morally, organizations should not encourage free labour via students. Universities also should not perpetuate this unfair system by encouraging students to accept unpaid internship positions to add additional experience to a resume. Employers and universities have created a cycle that constantly leaves students with lower socioeconomic status behind. Corporations and organizations will never achieve real equality and diversity in the workplace if they continue to allow and encourage unpaid internships to continue. 

Melissa Huen

Wilfrid Laurier '22

Melissa is in her 4th year at Wilfrid Laurier University, studying Music Therapy with a minor in Psychology. When she's not busy raving about her hometown, Vancouver, BC, you can find her baking, travelling, or checking out the newest restaurants in town.
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