All Cost, No Benefits

 

As spring quarter begins to wrap up, many students are feeling the pressure to find summer work opportunities. However, the prevalence of unpaid internships in today’s job market raises ethical and legal issues. Students need to realize that many unpaid positions are exploitative, elitist and illegal.

Internships have been an important part of the job market for decades. However, in the past they offered valuable hands-on mentoring, much more like the modern day equivalent of apprenticeships. In today’s economic climate, many employers have been forced to tighten their budgets and downsize full-time staff. The result is that internships, filled with competitive and ambitious interns, are replacing what were once entry-level jobs. Unpaid interns perform these jobs without any compensation while also reducing the amount of positions available to lower-wage workers.

Students are repeatedly told that landing an internship is essential for building an impressive resume and gaining connections in the professional world. However, pursuing an unpaid internship is an option primarily available to the privileged. Not everyone can afford to work for free. The practice of unpaid internships reserves the job market for the upper classes, directly hindering social mobility and creating an elitist professional environment. 

The existence of unpaid internships additionally fosters an attitude that assumes students should be willing to pay for professional and academic leg ups. Unfortunately, companies capitalize on the fact that students are willing to sacrifice financial compensation in the name of “experience.” 

There have even been instances of experience being sold to students. Last month, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights held an auction to raise money for their cause. The auction offered a variety of prizes, including a six-week unpaid internship at the United Nations. The current bid for the unpaid internship on the website charitybuzz.com is at $26,000. The final price will likely be even higher, as the auction ends on May 14. The UN internship is not the only internship being sold on Charitybuzz; other examples include a summer placement at Rebecca Taylor in New York City and a month-long internship at Rolling Stone magazine. 

Ethical and social issues aside, the fact remains that many unpaid internships are also illegal. If this exploitative system is to be challenged, students need to be adequately educated concerning their legal rights. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division developed a six-factor test for determining whether workers should legally be considered interns or employees. These guidelines dictate that interns must benefit from the internship by receiving training similar to that received in an educational environment. Furthermore, interns should not perform duties that their employers would otherwise have to hire someone else to do, and they should not do jobs that pose an “immediate advantage” to their employers.

Only state and local government agencies and nonprofit organizations are exempt from these regulations due to funding restrictions. Companies are also allowed to offer college credit in lieu of pay, which is how the Academic Internship Program at UCSD works.

There remains a huge disparity between legislation and the reality of unpaid internships. It is not in a company’s interest to enforce and uphold these standards, and most university career centers leave it up to the student to determine whether an internship abides by the Labor Department’s guidelines. Moreover, many career centers continue to post illegal internships on their websites without providing information about students’ rights. Many students are unaware of their legal rights and are accepting unpaid positions without doing their research.

Not only are unpaid internships a form of economic exploitation that takes advantage of struggling undergraduates, but employers are also increasingly questioning their value. A 2012 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers of 20,000 graduating seniors found that potential employers were far more impressed by students who had worked in paid positions. Compared to 61 percent of students who did paid internships, only 34 percent of students who had completed unpaid internships received job offers. According to this survey, having an unpaid internship increases a student’s likelihood of securing a job by a grand total of 1 percent.

Many students are unwilling to object to or turn down a position in case it jeopardizes any future career prospects, but this shouldn’t be the case. This month, a sophomore at NYU gathered 1,000 signatures on a petition to have the campus career center remove illegal unpaid internship postings. This is a step in the right direction — in the spirit of social equality, it is time that students demand financial compensation for their work.

More to Discover
Donate to The UCSD Guardian
$210
$500
Contributed
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

Donate to The UCSD Guardian
$210
$500
Contributed
Our Goal