OPINION: Unpaid internships are something to avoid

Though some argue payment for unpaid internships comes in the form of opportunity, others feel cheated by a lack of payment (photo courtesy of RJ Schmidt/Flickr).
Though some argue payment for unpaid internships comes in the form of opportunity, others feel cheated by a lack of payment (photo courtesy of RJ Schmidt/Flickr).

Students, professors, columnists and social scientists are all talking about the rise of the so-called “new normal” is the unpaid internship.

Unpaid labor has always been in existence, yet, more than ever, the unpaid internship has taken a prominent position in American economic culture.  

According to the Association of Colleges and Employers, over 63 percent of the nation’s class of 2013 had an internship or “co-op” of some kind. Of those who had an internship, 48 percent worked without monetary pay.

Last week, the Fourth Estate interviewed multiple students on the positional phenomenon. Many of them felt that unpaid internships are worth it, provided that the intern in question gains something. Students felt that unpaid internships are worth the work if the intern learned a valuable skill in place of monetary compensation. If one learns something, or if it leads to a paying career, then why not pursue an opportunity in an unpaid internship?

It would be interesting to know if any of the four students interviewed knew of a recent court case wherein unpaid internships were declared illegal. Earlier this year, as reported by the Collegiate Times, a judge in New York ruled that unpaid interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures were unjustly denied monetary compensation for their work.

The former interns successfully argued that their work had been menial rather than educational, thus violating ethics regarding unpaid internship positions.

“This lawsuit has prompted discussion regarding the legality and ethics of unpaid internships,” wrote Matthew Johnson of the Times.

The interns’ arguments were valid for ultimately the vast majority of unpaid internships—perchance all of them—are at best not worth it and at worst illegal.

Consider the inherent deception of unpaid internships. The assumption subtlety placed is that the worst thing about the job is no money. The problem goes beyond that, of course. An unpaid internship takes time and always has expenses. It is not, as some may assume, a matter of not getting spending money. There is no compensation for expenses, no gas money or food money, no way to pay rent or for other modern amenities. It’s not an issue of having no gains; it’s an issue of having losses. 

Furthermore, for far too many graduates these days, unpaid internships are becoming the only option. These individuals not only have food and travel expenses, they often have loans to pay for the education that was supposed to give them a bright future drenched in opportunity. These are serious matters that some free lunches in the break room are not going to cover.   

Then there is the issue of how some internships pay the intern with educational experience. Learning does not pay bills. It would be one thing if said learning could guarantee something that could sustain an individual, but no such guarantee exists in our economic reality.

In February, the Washingtonian ran a story by Hannah Seligson all about the “permatern”, a mostly 20-something community of workers who find themselves constantly going from one internship to the next, hoping and yet never receiving a job.

Seligson’s quote from Young Invincibles Cofounder Aaron Smith, an organization which works to empower young individuals, is telling: “I’m blown away by the number of back-to-back internships and how hard it is to go from an internship into a full-time paid position.”

In other words, not only are unpaid internships costly and possibly illegal, they—along with internships in general—give absolutely no guarantee of gainful employment. The only winners in this bargain are those who get free or cheap labor from desperate Millennials unable to find work elsewhere because no one wants to give them a chance.

This cycle of exploitation will stop by only one of two possible means. Maybe the New York court decision against Fox Searchlight could lead to an eventual outlawing of unpaid internships nationwide. But more likely, the grassroots solution will be required instead. This will involve our generation recognizing the pointless nature of handing out our labor for nothing tangible in return.

Only a massive boycott of such positions will lead labor-hungry businesses to change their ways and offer something livable in return. While not the best fictional role model, Heath Ledger’s Joker put it all too well: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication.   

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