“Get your foot in the door” is a common phrase that encourages a go-getter attitude. As college students, we’re used to hearing that sentiment. It emphasizes the power of the individual. It implies that internships and subsequent career successes are there for the taking, and the only advantages go to those tenacious and hardworking enough to grab it.
But to believe this is to falsely see the door as being opened equally wide for everyone. It gives the illusion of an equal playing field, when in reality we exist in a world of massive inequality, and unpaid internships actively skew the field even more toward the privileged.
Patrick Chidsey, the associate director and career counselor at the UW Career and Internship Center, said that he sees many students not pursuing internships because they have to work full-time jobs instead.
“Many students graduate without having done an internship, whether it’s paid or unpaid,” Chidsey said. “And generally they’re at a disadvantage then in the job market because we see a strong correlation –– nationally and definitely here at UW –– between undergrads who do at least one internship and how that leads to job offers.”
Last summer, I attempted to juggle a part-time job with my unpaid internship, but I quit a month into the summer because the hours started to conflict. Although I was disappointed that I’d no longer have that summer pocket change, I was able to choose the internship over the job with little stress and no risk to my basic needs.
This will be my second summer doing an unpaid internship, a statement that immediately denotes my privilege. Connections that I made and references that I added to my resume through the first internship helped me to secure the second. In other words, I got to join the cycle because my privilege allowed me to go three months without having a job. I didn’t have to worry about not being able to afford housing or food or tuition for the rest of college.
That choice is one many students across the country do not get to make. A huge sector of the population would never be able to sacrifice three months worth of pay, and as a result, people in this sector don’t get to enter the cycle of experience and connections that come with internships.
The facade of self-determination, the ideology that “you just have to work hard” immediately collapses once we take a step back and look honestly at the context in which students obtain and are able to accept unpaid internships. Talent and work ethic boils down to whether or not your family has money.
It goes without saying that this is a messed up system. Not paying interns turns a calculatedly oblivious blind eye to socioeconomic discrepancies. It enables companies to save money while not taking responsibility for their exclusion of most income demographics.
As college students, we are in the midst of transitioning to independent adult lives. Unpaid internships ignore the varying degrees of financial independence that different young people experience. They impede this transition for lower income people who already will face more obstacles on their career path.
The legality of who can and cannot hire interns without pay is murky at best. The Supreme Court has held that companies don’t have to pay employees if the work that the employee does “serves only his or her own interest” and is given instruction by another employee. The Washington State Department of Labor also provides similar guidelines.
Rephrasing these vague and jumbled laws more succinctly in a 2015 article, Forbes wrote, “In other words, if the intern boosts productivity, he or she must be paid.”
Although internships are educational experiences, most certainly fall within these loosely framed guidelines of “productivity.” Internships are work, and failure to compensate people fairly is more than just an annoyance — it promotes systemic inequality.
And unpaid internships don’t just harm young people trying to pursue careers. Giving valuable connections and opportunities to such a limited group of people reduces the range of perspectives and insights in the workplace, something which harms all fields. Whether it’s politics, journalism, or business, excluding non middle-class applicants is not conducive to creativity or progress.
The UW Career and Internship Center is working to raise awareness by educating companies about the importance of paying interns. Chidsey said that as internships are increasingly critical for jobs after college, the growth that needs to happen as a nation is more apparent.
My take: Employers need to do their part by keeping the door open — for everyone.
Reach writer Sasha Jenkins at email@example.com. Twitter: SashaJ__