Internships and Exploitation

It seems like every day I’m spotting a new ad for an organisation seeking unpaid interns. Unpaid internships have a long tradition, of course, but it does seem, at least on superficial glance, like there are more of them than ever before. Talking to people seeking work, there’s definitely been an uptick in people telling me they have trouble getting paying entry level positions, because organisations want them to work for free as interns.

This is a serious problem. Most unpaid internships offer college credit as compensation. Which is great if you, one, are in college, and, two, can afford to support yourself without additional income. The number of people who meet these two criteria is actually not very high, limiting internship opportunities to college students with some money behind them. In other words, upper middle class and upper class students. Most college students I know can’t afford to spend 10, 15, or 20 hours a week at an unpaid internship, especially in the summer, when they need to earn money to support themselves during the school year.

This means that the people getting entry level positions tend to fall within some very narrow categories. When the only way to get work with limited or no experience is through an unpaid internship, people have no realistic chance of building a career. Because they can’t get the experience they need to work their way into paid positions. They can’t network and make connections at a job in order to access people who can help them get ahead in a given field, because they can’t get their feet in the door. They have to work, because they need money more than they need college credit. Or they don’t need college credit at all, because they aren’t in college.

This is a real problem. There are people who need job experience who can’t get it because if they apply for internships, they are rejected, because they aren’t in school. You must be a college student for some internships because that’s how companies justify not paying people, is by providing compensation in the form of college credit. So if you’re trying to build a new career, if you’re out of school, a lot of doors are closed to you even if you can afford to support yourself through an unpaid internship. And who is more likely to be able to do that, a college student with no sources of income, or a person who has been working and saving?

I am far from the first person to discuss the fact that unpaid internships are exploitative and that they reinforce class divides. A casual Google search can point you in the direction of any number of articles, including in publications like the New York Times, discussing the problems with internships and suggesting that the system needs reform. That, bluntly, no person should have to work for free to get job experience, no person should be forced to work for free in order to advance a career.

Internships are not volunteering. Volunteerism has an important place in society and I think it carries tremendous benefits. But the purpose of volunteering is distinct from interning. Interns are in a workplace to learn, to acquire skills, to make connections, to explore a possible career. And their employers get a lot out of them. Interns are writing code at tech companies, working on articles for magazines, conducting research. Their work is valuable and in the real world, they would be paid for it.

Interns add value to an organisation, even if their stay is brief. To not pay them is insulting. It’s not just exploitative, it’s not just rife with problems in terms of how people think about class and careers and building lives. It’s also just…rude. It’s rude to tell people that they should work for you for free, no matter how big and impressive your organisation. It’s rude to tell people that, functionally, they should pay for the privilege of working for you.

Sure, some organisations provide housing for their interns. Sometimes. A lot don’t. Most don’t provide food, unless the company has a kitchen with chefs preparing food anyway. Some may offer help with transportation. Many don’t. So when you enter an unpaid internship, you have to think about the cost of living in the area and whether you can afford to pay for job experience and a name on your resume. You have to think about how the internship will hurt your finances, which is ridiculous.

Companies talk about needing ‘interns’ to separate them from ‘real’ employees, like they are doing people an immense favour by accepting them as sub-par workers. Interns have to bust their humps, though. They are often at the beck and call of other employees, they put in long hours, and they have to do it with a smile on their face so they get a good writeup and recommendation, and possibly a chance at ‘real’ employment with the company in the future. To be an intern is to put in hard hours with minimal reward. For some people, the reward of working at a company they like is just not enough.

People working as interns feed the system, contributing to the idea that companies can continue to demand free labour and get away with it because there will always be people applying for internships. And I don’t necessarily fault people for being in that position, because for some fields, you have to intern, and it has to be unpaid, if you want a chance at breaking into the field. Interns are the victims of the system as much as they are perpetuating it, and it’s not as simple as saying ‘people just shouldn’t accept unpaid positions and the system will stop.’

Reforming the system requires top-down work, and it requires valuing interns as employees who deserve more compensation than some credits on their transcripts. It requires opening up entry level jobs to everyone, not just college students with money.