Many United States students are offered an unfair employment deal — work for no pay. Students know about these programs, called unpaid internships. They often are thought of as innocent programs created to help students and recent graduates, but some of us find them more sinister.
Internships once were an opportunity for potential employees to see what work was like at a particular company without making a major commitment. Although not paid, interns gained experience they could use to develop their skills and build a résumé. There was even the chance of a job offer at the end of the ordeal. However, as the current economic crisis continues to reverberate across our society, companies are relying more and more on interns as a source of free labor.
People aged 18-24 today work as interns in significantly higher numbers than their parents’ generation, according to a poll by the National Union of Students and YouGov. The poll shows that 30-40 years ago, only two percent of people in this age bracket became an intern during their lives — now the number is 20 percent. In addition, one in three internships are unpaid, according to the Sutton Trust during November 2014. Instead of offering compensated entry-level jobs to new members of the working class, our economy has transitioned to offering unpaid internships. An angry citizen might ask, “Do unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws?” The courts have ruled in recent lawsuits that many do.
Condé Nast, the corporation that publishes Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and more, recently paid $5.8 million in a class action lawsuit, according to a November 2014 Business Insider. The company agreed it had mistreated 7,500 interns by withholding compensation and shut down its entire internship program after the suit was settled. However nice this might sound to an individual upset about unpaid internships, we must keep in mind the settlement only gives each exploited intern about $775, according to the same article. This is a laughable sum for the hours interns put in.
In addition to breaking the law, unpaid internships are more feasible for the rich than for the poor. While working for free, interns still require food, water, shelter and so on. Those born into wealthy families find surviving during an unpaid internship a lot easier than those born into lower- and middle-income families who cannot ask their families for assistance. For instance, 74 percent of British families say they cannot afford to send family members to unpaid internships, according to a December 2014 The Guardian article.
Even the benefits we used to get from internships are slipping away. For example, college students are not better off in the job market if they participate in an unpaid internship, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers during 2013. This report examines the percentage of college graduates who are offered at least one job upon graduating. The hiring rate for graduates who had completed an unpaid internship was 37 percent, only two percent higher than those who hadn’t done an internship.
The people who run our economy tell us internships are a necessary step to enter the workforce, but this simply is not true. Interns do not give away their labor in exchange for a stronger résumé — they are laboring away for much less of a boost than they imagine.
As a Truman student, the pressure to work for free as an intern is very visible — internship advertisements easily are found during a quick walk through any academic building. Our society even praises people who land work as unpaid interns, rewarding them with a pat on the back similar to getting a job. However, we should see unpaid internships for what they are — not as an opportunity, but as a scam put on by companies looking to lower production costs.
Will Chaney is a freshman economics major from Bridgeton, Mo.