It’s Time to Eliminate the Unpaid Internship

Just because we had to endure work without pay doesn’t mean we should pass it on to the next generation

Unpaid interns at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva hold a banner that says “PAY YOUR INTERNS” during a demonstration organized by The Fair Internship Initiative (FII) on August 14, 2017.
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

We’re told we need to go to college to learn how to enter an industry to make money for ourselves. At the same time, college is becoming increasingly more expensive and less affordable. There are so many of us who didn’t have trust funds to rely on or the option of leaning on a scholarship. Many of us have struggled because we had to support ourselves while simultaneously managing to graduate.

In addition to all of this, getting an internship is a step of the college journey that’s practically forced down our throats. If we don’t get one, the chances of us landing any type of well-paying job is even further out of reach. And what’s worse is that it’s become an expectation that we completely surrender to the idea of working without any type of financial incentive, all in the name of preparing us for a career… that pays… after college.

We’ve grown past this. Students aren’t entering any workplace completely devoid of skills or knowledge these days — thank you internet and YouTube. Internships do provide a pathway to sharpen skills and even create more, but taking away an opportunity to be compensated for the hours they put in on top of school and other jobs shouldn’t sit right with any of us.

There should be more opportunities to be compensated given to students, especially those of color, for dedicating their semesters to jobs that are most likely not going to hire them later.

In the midst of all this, unpaid internships disproportionately affect Black people, Hispanic people, and other minority groups that have to rely on student loans as well as deal with discrimination in the workforce and job selection processes. Compared to their White peers, more Black and Hispanic students are relegated to having to settle for unpaid internships — if they are even given or able to accept the opportunity at all.

This shouldn’t even be a debate anymore. Employers that can put up money should. Period.

While unpaid internships are still a norm, they shouldn’t be an expectation. There should be more opportunities to be compensated given to students, especially those of color, for dedicating their semesters to jobs that are most likely not going to hire them later.

They can and they might hire these interns, but think about this: Did you end up at the place where you interned? I worked my butt off and can say that I didn’t. I didn’t even get an offer, and I went above and beyond. I got some experience, but it didn’t set me up for my current career. Can you say the same? If so, we are all more alike than you probably would like to admit.

It’s not a secret that unpaid internships have largely benefitted those who could afford to take them.

I get it. The words “opportunity” and “learning” are buzzwords for the way this world works. We value them almost more than we do our own salaries, but here’s the thing: Learning and opportunity don’t pay the bills. Money does. Learned experience can put students in a position to later ease the financial burden they have, but they are not imminent or immediate in providing that relief. Not unless learning and opportunity intersect with payment.

It’s not a secret that unpaid internships have largely benefitted those who could afford to take them. It was never a matter of “If you don’t like it, then go find another one,” because for decades internships have not only been difficult to land, but relatively limited… and often unfilled by minorities. It’s either eat or be eaten, literally, and sometimes that’s not a worthy risk to take — not when it’s a battle between being able to work a real job and focusing on actual schooling or only having seven bucks for weeks because yay, learning!

I repeat: Unpaid internships should not be an expectation anymore. They will always exist and I know there are circumstances where it’s just not feasible for every company. But I do believe that for those that can, they should be willing to open up their wallets off of principle alone. These intern managers don’t work for free. They shouldn’t just expect students to work for free either. They’re humans with human needs and bills that need to be paid. Shouldn’t we want to use our resources to pass what we have on to the ones who will be taking our places?

We all know that misery loves company. If you ask someone about unpaid internships, there’s a good chance that they’ll tell you that learning is invaluable even if the labor is free… because that’s what they had to endure. But it’s just not that black and white. People are comfortable with the fact that because they had to scratch and claw their way to any modicum of success, not stripping others of that experience should be required to build character. But that way of thinking is antiquated and it’s time we put it to rest for good.

There are plenty of people who will work for free for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and sacrifice everything, but that doesn’t mean that should be the blueprint.

Nothing about internships should be based in survival of the fittest and strongest will to live theories. They should be equitable in the way they teach and in the way they pay.

For every company that can’t afford to put an intern on its payroll, there’s another one that can. Bigger businesses with robust budgets tip the scales when compared to the mom-and-pops. Paying interns isn’t going to make students work less and it doesn’t handicap anyone from making their time challenging and rewarding. There are countless worthy first-generation college students, minorities, and others who have too much on their plate to try and juggle internships that don’t pay while trying to keep their heads above water.

Money is a great motivator, but it’s not the only motivator. There are plenty of people who will work for free for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and sacrifice everything, but that doesn’t mean that should be the blueprint. In fact, it makes it harder for everyone.

We should all be advocates of doing better by interns. They aren’t just masters of busywork. They can be very valuable assets to companies that care about how they use them. What’s just as important as learning is them understanding their value as workers and how they contribute. Even if they don’t choose to follow their internship into their career, the value they have for their abilities will translate across the board for them.

It is well beyond time for paid internships to become our norm.

A writer and singer-songwriter centered around perspective and diversity. Words found on Medium’s Level and Index. Follow me @JoshuaDairen on Twitter and IG.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store