Internships are a huge deal. They offer invaluable exposure, experience, and connections in the field of a student’s choice. At least, that’s what the postings on my school’s career services website promised. The site did not mention the difficulty in obtaining one (no problem, everything is a competition at this level anyway), and didn’t advise what to do if there are no paid internships in the industry of a student’s choice.
Unpaid internships are not the exception; it appears they are quickly becoming the rule. And this rule is throwing the playing field off-kilter, heavily in favor of the wealthier candidates. This opinion is not exclusive to me; it was actually first brought to my attention by my equally well-read Yale classmates (both those on some sort of financial aid and those who pay the full $60K a year).
Wealthy students can afford the best schools, the extra tutoring, the service trips to needy areas, and . . . the internships. America is the land of equal opportunity, not equal result, so naturally some people are better off than others. Nevertheless, unpaid internships cannot and should not fit within this rationale. Many large corporations, historically exclusive industries (i.e. fashion), and government offices offer unpaid internships, all but eliminating those who cannot afford to pay to work from the hiring pool.
When someone accepts an unpaid internship, unless she lives where she plans to work, she has to pay for her housing and living expenses. Not to mention that the time she spends at the internship could be spent making money to help either her family or herself (hellooo student loans). But capitalists disagree; they see it as a necessary sacrifice, as a way of paying dues. Well, last I checked with my fellow millenials, no one minds starting at the bottom. But if we don’t even have a chance to do the grunt work, then we won’t have the chance to contribute to that company or influence public policy. Worst of all, we will not be offered a job, because we will not have the necessary experience.
The problem I have outlined is not exclusive to undergrads trying to hustle during their summers; graduate students and even graduates are still participating in unpaid internships. My friend Imogen recently told me about two friends of hers, both of whom just graduated from Yale. They have nice apartments in enviable neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and they are doing what they have always wanted to do, with internships in their desired fields. These internships are unpaid, but thanks to Mom and Pops, they can pursue their career goals.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not blaming the parents. If I were a parent in the same position, and an unpaid internship was what my child wanted and needed to advance in her career, then I would gladly fork over the cash for an apartment in a reputable neighborhood. I would throw in a little spending money every month too, because it’s a hard knock world out there when kids who think they can make the world a better place are hindered by something as inconsequential as money.
There is more and more evidence of internships replacing former entry-level jobs in the guise of equal benefits: the intern gets experience and the employer reduces costs. We are told that if we tough it out at our internship, we may get a job offer. Well, that is not necessarily true, especially for those unpaid internships where experience may amount to knowing which HP scanner is easiest to use and who’s the friendliest barista at the local Starbucks. According to a survey of graduating seniors over three years by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, having no internship experience does not put a job applicant at much of a disadvantage compared to someone who was able to wrangle an unpaid internship, and saves the applicant money.