Springing for That Unpaid Internship?


BOLOGNA — On the internship hunt for this semester, I’ve been struck by a conundrum that has haunted me my whole life: should I spring for all the unpaid internships that claim to give me the “experience” I will need after graduation on top of my degree from SAIS and all my other credentials to land myself an entry-level job that requires six years of work experience? For some other generation, unpaid internships may have offered a way for companies and organizations to allow students and recent graduates to beef up their résumés and learn how things are done, in a post-Great Recession world, that isn’t a practical model anymore and the way internships are done amounts to little more than modern-day slavery.

The choice isn’t just between taking an internship or not for me; it’s between adding to my pitiful bank account balance working somewhere that will pay me but probably has nothing to do with my career aspirations, or going dangerously into the red for what is at best a nebulous benefit and at worst amounts to me making copies and coffee for the summer. Some internships require a 30- to 40-hour work week which precludes the intern from being able to hold down a side-job even as they have to spend money on housing, food, and transport. At least indentured servants got passage across the Atlantic Ocean in return for their labor.

Further, in the day and age when society is increasingly concerned about income inequality, the system of unpaid internships only reinforces the structural issues already present: those who through whatever means have enough money to afford taking a summer off to volunteer receive all the benefits the internship supposedly provides, while those who can’t are left behind to flounder in one of the worst job markets in recent memory. What’s worse, many companies and organizations have figured out that it is easier to use unpaid interns to do work than to hire additional personnel, leading to a conveyor belt of internships for many young professionals who are having more and more trouble getting their careers started, which pushes down their lifetime earning potential.

At the end of the day, all internships should be paid, or at the very least they should be means-tested so that lower-income applicants can justify the financial decision to do an internship instead of working. If a company or organization expects me to put in a significant amount of time learning how it works and contributing value to their operations, then is it too much to expect that I — just like any other person working for them — should be compensated for my skills, talents, and effort?