Unpaid internships exploit students

It’s starting to become that time of year again: temperatures finally aren’t awful, football is plentiful and the colors outside are magnificent. School is starting to get more intense and I’m finally starting to settle into a routine.

Another thing I tend to associate with fall weather, however, are the throngs of people hoping to attend the mecca of academia, the career fair, while walking around campus wearing suits and dresses. You know you’ve seen them. I know I have, too. Maybe you’re even someone who attends in hopes of landing an internship, like many of my roommates were this week.

Unlike my roommates, who are all engineers, I major in the liberal arts (classics, to be exact). The career fairs for us are few and far between. Landing an internship takes a lot of personal investigation and hard work, and almost all of the time, those internships require large amounts of time spent with no pay. This seems to be a shocking trend throughout nearly all industries as of late.

Quite frankly, my message is this: Unpaid internships are a scheme.

At the risk of sounding too anti-establishment, unpaid internships are tools used by companies to exploit students for free labor. This, in exchange, allows that company to function while providing “work experience” for the student.

Not only that, but there’s also the notion that most undergraduates are expected to have an internship at some point in their academic careers. Without one, it’s very difficult to build a resume and get a career or get into grad school. Thus, employers that offer unpaid internships are holding students hostage.

They know we need the experience, but they also know we need compensation to live. Unfortunately, those that offer unpaid internships seem to leverage the two against each other as a way of gaining free labor.

In fact, entities that have vast amounts of unpaid internships are actively destroying the entry level job market. A company could pay a new hire full time for their work — or they could just hire an intern for free instead. All that company has to do is say that the intern is gaining valuable and relevant training, that the internship won’t displace regular employees or that the employer doesn’t gain “immediate advantages” from the intern’s work, and that’s enough reason to withhold pay from them.

If a company doesn’t have to spend that extra money, and can instead dole out tasks to a worker who is operating at no monetary cost to the company, why wouldn’t they? The sad fact is that many employing bodies use this strategy with no regards to the students they are exploiting.

The student then provides labor for the employer, allowing it to gain more profits. By logical means alone, this should mean that the student should gain some sort of compensation.

The claim that many employers make is that they are giving the unpaid intern “work experience” or training. “Work experience” is not adequate compensation. Though this training can prepare an intern for the future and perhaps even give them a sense of what their prospective career may entail, “work experience” isn’t directly going to put food on the table or buy gasoline.

This lack of pay, in turn, creates a climate where there is no upward mobility. If someone can’t afford to live that summer, semester or year without income, they become ineligible for the job in the first place. Thus, the entire unpaid internship process is exclusively available to those applicants who can afford to live without an income.

Those who cannot afford that opportunity miss out on life-changing chances, all while those who can afford to not have an income are gifted all of the opportunities. An entire realm of jobs require payment — our unpaid time and labor — to attain. If that’s not the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.

Isn’t this the land of “upward mobility” and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps? Unpaid internships are destroying that very idea. They are rigging the game in favor of those who can afford them and creating a biased field of employment all while exploiting individual interns.

Some entities, however, seem to realize the error in unpaid internships, and thus their recruitment of top level talent here at the University has flourished.

A good friend of mine in computer engineering had an internship this summer at Boeing in St. Louis, Mo. He was compensated over $10,000, and Boeing also paid for his summer housing. To someone from a liberal arts background, this is almost unheard of. It seems that more times than not, STEM employers are actively trying to recruit top talent and compensate them healthily, which is something that seems to be forgotten by many companies.

I’m not saying that I should get paid as much as my computer engineer friend. His industry is probably more lucrative than mine. I’m also not saying that those people who use unpaid internships are evil, or even that they necessarily are deliberately bad people, but what they are doing is so clearly wrong and exploitative that it deserves to be stood up to.

Yes, we are students. Yes, we are hunting for jobs. And yes, we deserve to be compensated appropriately while doing so.

Boswell is a junior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]