Internships. They are arguably the most effective way for a student to get a foot in the door and prove themselves as a valuable asset to an organization, with years of studies and surveys that reinforce their high impact.
In some industries, they’re considered the new entry-level job and are expected to be completed if a student wants any chance at success in the workforce. But when they go unpaid, are they truly fair?
Unpaid internships are meant to grow a student’s professional network and provide real-world experience. By law, organizations aren’t required to pay their interns as long as the intern is benefiting more from the experience than the employer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
But it may be time for unpaid internships to become a thing of the past. Their inaccessibility to thousands of students who can’t afford them sets them up as a privilege to be enjoyed only by higher-class students who can afford to go a summer without a paycheck.
According to The Guardian, about 43% of the 1.5 million internships available in America each year were unpaid as of 2016.
So, why do students take unpaid internships?
Most colleges today require students to do an internship for credit. In fact, many institutions charge additional tuition in order to receive the credit. This was the case at Westminster College until the 2020-21 academic year, which requires its business, arts administration and communication majors to take at least one internship before graduation.
The promise of a potential full-time job and the valuable experience that comes with an internship can drive students to take on an internship without pay.
For example, KSL NewsRadio Executive Producer and Daytime Editor Kira Hoffelmeyer started her journalism career as an unpaid intern.
“I’ve never been someone who is motivated by money,” Hoffelmeyer said. “I am so grateful for my internship because I know I wouldn’t have the job I do now if I hadn’t done it.”
Other students, however, can’t afford to take on an internship without compensation.
Natalie Bina, a Westminster graduate in neuroscience, took an unpaid internship when she was a student at a lab at the University of Utah that studied obsessive-compulsive disorder behaviors in mice.
“One of the biggest requirements was that we had to be in the lab for 20 hours a week,” Bina said. “Balancing a full-time school schedule with that was a lot.”
After nine months of working on the project, Bina eventually left because she couldn’t afford to continue without being paid.
“I would’ve loved to have stayed and finished the project, but I just couldn’t afford to be unpaid for 20 hours a week anymore,” Bina said. “There was just not enough time for another job on top of my schedule.”
The problem with unpaid internships
The biggest issue with unpaid internships is already given in their name: They’re unpaid.
Even still, many organizations promise the potential of a full-time paying job by offering unpaid internships as a way to entice potential candidates. However, data suggests that unpaid interns are 26% less likely to receive a job offer after graduation than those who are paid, according to a 2013 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Another caveat to the unpaid internship debate is that many students don’t have the means to work without proper compensation. Lower-income students aren’t provided the same opportunities to get the job experience required of them and may miss out on valuable networking experiences that could lead to a full-time job, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Oftentimes, these students come from minority groups, contributing to a greater racial disparity in the workplace. According to a 2019 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, white students are more likely to be paid interns than other races, while students in minority groups are more likely to take on an unpaid internship or no internship at all.
Westminster sociology professor Mark Rubinfeld said social class is generationally reproduced through programs such as unpaid internships.
“Students from wealthier families are more likely to have the kind of social networks and connections through their families and communities that can help set them up with paid internships than students from less wealthy families living in less wealthy communities,” Rubinfeld said in an email.
He went on to talk about how the connections and networks built from those paid internships can lead to lucrative jobs down the road.
“The higher the socio-economic status of families, the more likely that some of these paid internships may be more lucrative internships, such as those in prestigious law firms or high-powered executive offices,” Rubinfeld said. “This leads to even more profitable social networks and connections for these students to draw upon after their paid internship is over.”
Internships at Westminster
At Westminster, 40% of internships taken by students in the last two years were unpaid, just below the national average for the number of unpaid internships available in the United States, according to Westminster Career Services. But data suggests that working with university career centers can increase the likelihood of landing a paid position.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students are 1.35 times more likely to find a paid internship when students meet with a career coach at their university career center.
Lisa Heiskell, a career coach at Westminster, emphasized the importance of using the career center to a student’s advantage to help them find the right internship for their needs.
“Over the last year, we’ve seen so much change in how people find jobs,” Heiskell said in reference to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “We absolutely recommend getting that support [from career services].”
Where do we go from here?
The road to making unpaid internships a thing of the past isn’t a smooth one. In some cases, organizations simply don’t have the financial means to pay their interns. However, some employers have ideas on how to offset costs.
Kira Hoffelmeyer, for example, has plans in place to partner with nearby schools and start a journalism training course in the future.
“It’s on my bucket list,” Hoffelmeyer said.
The course would be offered at no additional cost to public schools and would give students a chance to interact with working journalists and gain valuable job experience without the looming cost of an internship.
Hoffelmeyer also suggested that interns who needed a place to stay could temporarily live with host families who would cover the cost of living while student interns pursue their career goals.
The bottom line: Organizations should pay for services they find valuable.
That should include investing in their interns and creating a more accessible workplace for everyone. Equally as important is students using resources provided to them by their university to find the best internship for their career goals.
For students looking to take on internships in the future, Hoffelmeyer reminds students to remember their value and skillset.
“It’s on students to demand their worth,” Hoffelmeyer said.