The case against unpaid internships


Kris Long, Print Editor-in-Chief

As college has gotten increasingly expensive, secondary schools and universities have sought to create a more practical image. Rather than focus on things students may never apply in the workplace, institutions are beginning to make their curriculum more directly applicable to careers. Part of this effort – including Manhattan High’s work-based-learning initiative in the Career and Technical Education Department – is offering internships. These programs give students work experience that can be valuable in future careers and build soft skills difficult to develop in a classroom. However, they have one major flaw at both the college and high school level: many of the students working them do so for free. Unpaid internships deepen socio-economic divisions and present ethical violations.

As a high school student, I work for free all the time. But those are classes, and my teachers don’t benefit from me completing my homework – it’s my decision whether to do the assignment and it’s my benefit if the decision is to do it. However, I’d be a little annoyed if every assignment I turned in Mr. McCoy then sold for a profit. Even if I’d learned something from the assignment, and even if McCoy selling it led to my work being recognized by a college or employer who might then hire me, why should my teacher be the only one earning money for work he didn’t do? 

There’s no reason internships shouldn’t be considered similarly. Yes, students earn valuable skills from internships. But last I checked, valuable experiences aren’t a check one can walk into the bank and cash in directly. What can be directly cashed in on is the labor interns do for companies and nonprofits. Organizations take advantage of knowledge students already have, gained at the expense of either the taxpayers at the secondary level or student’s own pockets thereafter, and give them an opportunity to keep practicing those skills. They don’t incur more expenses teaching students than with a typical employee. Therefore, they directly profit from free labor they would otherwise have to pay someone for. Profit from free labor, I’d hope we can agree, is unfair to the person laboring. 

Companies are expected to pay people for other entry-level jobs. Like many high school students, I’ve worked an entry level position at a fast-food place over the summer and they compensated me for my time. I learned a lot from my summer job, and I’ll put it on my resume as work experience in the future. What Chipotle didn’t ask me to do was work my dishwashing job for three months for free, put that experience on my resume, then hope another restaurant hires me in a non-entry position because of it. An internship is just an entry-level job, except at an organization more prestigious than a restaurant. Because of this, companies expect interns to consider being graced with the opportunity to work for them payment enough. This logic fails to consider that work is work — whether done in a suit and tie or in a T-shirt soaked with dirty dishwater. Work is work, and, if it’s being done for someone else, it’s fair to expect tangible payment. Companies shouldn’t be allowed to use prestige as a currency, leaving their interns to hope someone else will pay for their labor in the long-run.

The long-game approach that unpaid internships require means they are left unavailable for those who must support themselves in the moment. At the high school level, this manifests itself in a senior choosing early release over work-based-learning so they can take on more hours at work to support themselves or their family. Moreover, a full-time, unpaid summer internship in Los Angeles requires someone in the financial position to live in a city for three months without any income — also known as a very rich kid. With internships so important to the job market,  leaving out low-income students entrenches the cycle of poverty when they graduate college without work experience. 

Businesses may claim they can’t afford to pay their interns. To that argument I’ll quote FDR: “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” If a company cannot function without free labor, then it’s not much of a company. 

Others claim the lessons learned from an internship are adequate payment. To that I’ll ask if we shouldn’t pay teachers for their in-service days, because it’s making them better teachers after all, and they could use that to get a raise in the future. Knowledge is money in a round-about sort of way, but interns have already gained enough knowledge to qualify themselves as interns. When someone begins contributing to society through their education, not simply bettering themselves, it’s time to pay them. 

All that’s needed to make internships fair and beneficial to everyone is companies paying interns for their contributions to the organization. For high school students working 10 hours a week, it’s not a lot of compensation to ask for. For college students working a full time job, it’s about time they asked for it. In a rich country like ours, there’s no need to rely on free labor other than corporate greed, and education should play no part in that.