Show Us the Money: Students May Want to Pass On Unpaid Internships

Ah, the humble intern. Monica Lewinsky got plenty out of her internship at the White House; Chandra Levy, an intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons who disappeared in 2001 and was later found murdered in Rock Creek Park, perhaps got less out of hers.

By Riley Salant-Pearce

Interns are the memo-takers, coffee-makers and file-organizers of the world, and their volunteer labor totals a $124 million handout to corporate America each year — at least according to a quick calculation done by New York Times op/ed contributor Anya Kamenetz. Kamenetz has a simple message: “Take This Internship and Shove It.” Or, if you value the work experience that an internship provides, at least salvage your dignity and take a paid position.

Her May 30 op/ed is one of the few pieces of journalism to take a critical look at the phenomenon of students jumping at the chance to work for free — or taking internships because their universities require them to do so. Kamenetz writes of her own college-era internship: “I took it for granted, as most students do, that working without pay was the best possible preparation for success; parents usually agree to subsidize their offspring’s internships on this basis. But what if we’re wrong?”

What if, indeed. With two-thirds of college students taking out loans to fund their studies, Kamenetz reasons that “those students who must borrow to pay tuition are going further into debt for internships” — all for the pipe dream that maybe, just maybe, their internship will lead to a job offer, or at least provide a vital foot in the door or the recommendation of a well-respected industry bigwig.

A poll conducted by found that more than 90 percent of interns received an offer for a full-time position after their internship. Ninety-five percent of student interns reported that they viewed internships as good work experience and helpful in jumpstarting their careers and networking in their chosen industry.

However, those numbers seem bloated, and students have every reason to be overly optimistic about the internships’ value.

When students earn college credit by performing internships, such as those through UCSD’s Academic Internship Program, employers don’t feel any guilt about using interns as unpaid temp workers. It’s easy for employers to reason that they “don’t have the resources” to pay interns or hire them even if they’ve proven their worth.

Still, students jump at internship opportunities, hoping they will prepare them for real jobs. Kamenetz finds this view problematic: “Unpaid internships are not jobs, only simulations. And fake jobs are not the best preparation for real jobs.” Even waiting tables is a more valuable and realistic job experience, she implies.

Indeed, the pull of the internships offered through AIP is that they are tailored to students. But a job — such as the type average UCSD students would want after graduation — is aimed toward a professional, not a student. Students should be pushed toward looking, acting and working like professionals — not encouraged to stay in the transitional, “not quite grown-up” period of being “just a student.”

Kamenetz also finds it worrisome that unpaid internships make students grateful to work for nothing, and ultimately links unpaid work with people having lowered expectations when they actually begin careers. She contends that “internships promote overidentification with employers: I make sacrifices to work free, therefore I must love my work.” Kamenetz also theorizes, “Perhaps this emotion helps explain why educated workers in this country are less and less likely to organize, even as full-time jobs with benefits go the way of the Pinto.” It’s a simple formula: Interns are conditioned to be grateful for whatever real or imagined opportunities the internship provides for them, at zero cost to the employer.

Kamenetz likens interns to illegal immigrants: “an oversupply of people willing to work for low wages or, in the case of interns, literally nothing.” Meanwhile, college students — who, despite being students, are worth something as workers — are selling themselves short.

In Britain, at least, this is having tangible, negative effects. Komenetz cites a recent survey done by Britain’s National Union of Journalists that found “that an influx of unpaid graduates kept wages down and patched up the gaps left by job cuts.”

For the one-third of college students who don’t need loans to finance their education, unpaid internships are a win-win situation. But, as Kamenetz points out, this isn’t meritocratic. It’s not the best students who are taken on as interns, but the ones who can afford to work for free — getting one’s foot in the door becomes a question of financial means, not of talent or skill.

As summer vacation approaches — or has already begun for many college students around the country — uncritical reports are touting the internship opportunities many companies are offering. Disneyland, for example, has unveiled an internship program, planning to offer college credit and $8 to $10 an hour to 200 interns.

Unfortunately, the positions offered are described as being in “retail, rides and food service” — not exactly intellectually stimulating work — and Disneyland admits it’s trying the program as a way to fill positions during a time when workers are scarce. Disneyland is simply repackaging menial summer jobs — the bread and butter of bored 16-year-olds — as internships worthy of college credit. It’s a pretty common pattern — a company realizes it has humdrum tasks that need to be completed, an internship position is created and students flock.

However, Disneyland did get something right: They’re paying their workers, and research shows that the most fruitful internships are the paid ones. It seems that when an employer pays an intern for their troubles, they’re more likely to give them interesting, productive, educational and difficult tasks — which is the whole point of interning in the first place. And offering a wage levels the playing field between wealthy students and those relying on financial aid.

The more important point, as Kamenetz points out, is that “getting hired and getting paid are what work, in the real world, is all about.” Working for pay is the defining characteristic of a job — it sounds obvious, but it’s lost on some employers, who bill unpaid internships as stand-ins for true job experience. Additionally, money is a great motivator. An unpaid coffee-fetcher is an understimulated wretch; a paid coffee-fetcher is someone agitating for some real tasks — and, in the long run, providing much more worth to the company or organization.

The enduring nature of unpaid internships is emblematic of the strange limbo that college students exist in. College students do high-level work and have a wide range of marketable skills, but, supported by parents or student loans, we are able to work for free, encouraged by our universities to view internships as classes conducted off campus.

Maybe it’s time for this paradigm to shift.