Unpaid Internships Need to Change

Earlier this month the Times ran a story on college graduates flocking to unpaid internships. The story is about how the bad economy has driven many graduates into the arms of unpaid work, and includes interviews with some interns who have sued for wages since their internships violate Labor Department regulations. But as Derek Thompson points out, internships are “an inextricable part of the college experience and a pre-req for post-graduate employment.” And that’s key. Graduates are okay with, or at least will settle for, unpaid internships because they’ve been told to. Colleges have been pushing internships in all sorts of fields, and industries are more than happy to bring in free work. Unpaid internships have become a standard in too many fields, and it puts everyone at a disadvantage.

In my four years at college, I raked up 10 weeks of an unpaid internship abroad (I independently won a $1000 scholarship, which covered less than the flight there, let alone the flight back, tuition, and living expenses) for one major and four months of unpaid internship at home (during which I was explicitly barred from working, which a number of those in my cohort ignored), along with three prior semesters of 6-hours-per-week internships, for another. I was one of the more privileged ones, with my parents covering tuition and my employer willing to hire me back when I returned from Uganda. For many students unpaid internships mean less wages to pay for the mounting expenses, and an internship that’s far away means usually means quitting whatever job you’ve been using to pay for things.

Internships are integral parts of many professions, and for some it actually makes quite a bit of sense – but that doesn’t mean they should be unpaid. As far as I can tell, education majors have always had to complete a student teaching requirement. Experience in the classroom is essential to teaching, and having a mentor teacher help you navigate through your first semester can be incredibly helpful. I knew this was a requirement, and so I planned for it, worked beforehand, and relied on my wife and parents while working long days and taking work home for four months. At my university there was very little help in ensuring that such a sacrifice was possible, and the little help available was reserved for math and science teachers, as per everyone’s obsession with those fields. For the elementary education majors, my alma mater has decided to double the student teaching requirement to two semesters, which does not bode well. While my own student teaching experience was unorthodox, to say the least, it was hugely beneficial and supplemented my education in a way that really couldn’t be replicated in a university – I just wish I had a little bit of help.

Other degree programs require internships that are flexible and, therefore, leave students open to being exploited even more. Student teaching, usually, offers the student a mentor and a classroom experience through effectively replacing the classroom’s teacher. The school gains little (outside of additional funding), but the student gains a lot (albeit while struggling to pay bills). Interning in many fields means one of two things (or both). You either do work that directly benefits your employer (at no cost) like completing research, reviewing books, and conducting interviews, or you do menial work and chores that don’t benefit you and could easily be left to the already-employed, such as picking up items and cleaning out offices. The first type of internship needs to be paid, and the second should really just end.

The culture of internships is apparently here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we can’t demand some changes. It’s pretty clear that a lot of unpaid internship programs violate minimum wage laws, and many of them shouldn’t even qualify for school credit based on the assigned tasks. If employers are going to require internships to be on prospective employees’ resumes, they should be offering at least minimum wage (which we all know is too low already) to their own interns. But for these same reasons, schools should be finding ways to offer stipends for students if they are going to require internships for graduation. If schools and employers both made the right decision across the board, they would end up having more experienced graduates and hiring better employees, and interns would be able to gain useful experience without making huge sacrifices. It’s not just a more fair option, but it’s smarter too.

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