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The Paradox Of Unpaid Internships

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While scrolling through the seemingly endless list of job postings on the likes of Handshake and LinkedIn, it’s difficult to spot a salary estimate in a sea of unpaid internships. Forget about minimum wage — for some students, finding a job that pays in a field they’re actually interested in is a luxury in itself. 

In theory, internships benefit students by helping them gain a better understanding of the kind of work they’ll be doing in that field, should they choose to pursue a career similar to their internship. Through hands-on experience, students are able to gain invaluable on-the-job experience, which is attractive to have on a resume. Interns also have the opportunity to meet professionals, find a mentor and network with other students. 

Given the myriad of opportunities associated with holding an internship, it’s no wonder that many students would do almost anything to land this coveted position. College-oriented sites like College Stats and institutions of higher education like Fremont College often emphasize the importance of finding an internship in a related field because of the many benefits. 

In competitive fields such as business and engineering, an internship position can give a candidate an edge over others. Proof of experience can make the difference between a job offer and a rejection. 

In evaluating the benefits of providing unpaid internships to students, equity should always be part of the discussion. Due to the lack of compensation, unpaid internships are inequitable and inaccessible to students that are already at a disadvantage. For students in stable financial situations, accepting an unpaid internship is more feasible than for students under financial stress because the former has the luxury of not worrying about tuition, rent and other living expenses. In fact, recent data suggests that the vast majority of students do not have the financial stability to comfortably accept an unpaid internship. According to research by Student Loan Hero, 69% of students that graduated in 2019 took out loans and accumulated an average debt of $29,000.

Because of this, students from low-income families may find it costly to work for a company or organization that doesn’t pay. Instead of spending that time getting experience in their desired field, some would rather find a minimum wage job in the service industry to ensure that they have food on the table. 

While the intent of providing training and exposure to students may be a positive one, unpaid internships inadvertently exclude the students that come from a disadvantaged background. Additionally, justifying unpaid internships as an extracurricular activity that benefits students is misleading; the work required of interns and the benefits they receive are not equivalent to one another. Students with internships have less time for school, other extracurricular activities and a paying job. Holding an internship also comes with its own expenses, such as transportation to get to and from the internship, additional supplies required for the job and in some cases, business attire to comply with the office’s standards. Although internships are advertised to help students receive experience or gain insight into their career, they can actually harm an ill-equipped subgroup of students in the process. 

With all of these reasons, unpaid internships should be banned. If companies are adamant in their desire to provide students with experience, they’ll rework their system to include compensation for their student interns. Otherwise, it seems companies hiring unpaid interns are just after the free labor that students are willing to provide. Worse, in internship layouts where students are ordered to do menial tasks such as filing and organizing papers, it seems that they’re only hired to complete the tasks that other paid employees don’t want or have the time to do. 

In these situations, companies should re-evaluate their motives and decide whether they’ll commit to training and teaching student interns in a mutually beneficial relationship, or drop the internship program altogether. It’s unethical for a business to implement a program that caters to the well-off while leaving their underprivileged counterparts in the dust. Programs like unpaid internships uphold pre-existing inequities and thus should be eliminated. In a fast-paced society that values hard work, experience is a commodity that should be attainable by everyone.
Angelene Obedoza is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at obedozaa@uci.edu.