Help me, I’m poor

December 12th, 2013


A good employee is someone who is motivated, creative, organized, eager to learn, and now, more than ever … unpaid.

Unpaid internships have exploded over the past two decades. Twenty years ago, only about 27 percent of college graduates were working at unpaid internships, but today that number stands at approximately 50 percent. Employers are becoming masters at enticing eager young students and graduates who are on the cusp of entering a less-than-flourishing job market with the hope of an impressive addition to their resume and a chance to get their feet wet in their desired field. And at least for now, these students (myself included) are buying into it.

I’m not devaluing the benefits of internships –after all,  I’ve done four unpaid internships throughout my college career. They give students the opportunity to get real-life work experience and a peek at what their future career might look like. I’m on board with the idea of paying my dues and starting at the bottom of the food chain. What concerns me is the possibility that some employers are taking advantage of unpaid internships with little regard to how these positions affect the interns themselves or the other employees.

I can’t speak for all unpaid interns and their individual experiences, but there also seems to be a wide variety of ways that internships operate. Some interns are relegated to clerical or assistant duties like making copies and running errands. Others contribute significantly to company projects and deal directly with clients. These are duties that many companies used to pay workers to perform. Whatever way you look at it, labor is being robbed of its value.

One of the worst evils that unpaid internships present is the lack of equal opportunity. For students who receive scholarships for college or whose parents take on all or part of their tuition bill, unpaid internships are a viable option. But for students who need to work one or more jobs to pay their way through school, they miss out on opportunities for internships. Down the road, employers will be more likely to hire graduates who have had internship experience. Thus, short-term financial insecurity puts these people at risk for long-term financial insecurity, and the model for the virtually nonexistent class mobility in the United States economy ensues.

The situation is even bleaker for interns whose employers don’t cover costs for transportation and parking, which means they are losing money every day they go to work.

In the U.S., where minimum wage and living wage are not synonymous, the fact that so many students and graduates are working for no wages at all is ludicrous. But increasingly, it seems that an internship is a prerequisite for a paid position, and the market for internships is growing more and more competitive.

Furthermore, the hiring of unpaid interns can take away positions for entry-level or low-tier jobs. Why would an employer pay someone a salary when they can have an intern do the same work for free? The only people ultimately benefitting from unpaid internships are employers themselves.

What really put me over the edge was when I heard that an unpaid intern lost a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer on the grounds that she was not paid, and therefore not considered an employee of the company. If interns are unpaid, it seems that the least companies could do is protect them against workplace crime, but that goes to show just how corrupt the situation is.

It seems like Americans are ready to throw unpaid internships onto the growing heap of unfair employment practices – along with insufficient minimum wage, inadequate sexual harassment protection policies and employment discrimination – and let it become yet another injustice that people gripe about but tolerate.

Some may argue that unpaid internships are a great way to make professional contacts, and this is true. But do you know what else is a great way to make professional contacts? A paying job.