The Actual Issue with Unpaid Internships

By: Ursula Perano|Opinion

I’ve completed my fair share of internships. Four, to be exact. I’ve worked in newsrooms, at government institutions, and for political organizations. I have expanded my skill set further than I would’ve imagined by my sophomore year, and I am grateful for every opportunity that has been provided to me. However, I feel it is important to note that throughout all but one of these positions I have been putting in my time, hard work, and knowledge for free.

I understand that internships aren’t supposed to be about pay. They’re supposed to be about gaining experience in your field and building your resume. Any academic or career advisor will tell you that taking advantage of these opportunities is one of the absolute best ways to increase your job security after graduation. However, what seems to be unrecognized, is that taking on an unpaid internship often means going months at a time without any income. An issue that severely marginalizes financially struggling students from having that same advantage in the job field post-graduation.

The math on what it cost me to get by as an unpaid intern during one of my previous summers exemplifies this issue. During the two-month period the position entailed, I lived in a small house, sharing a room with three other girls, in an unideal part of town for a grand total of $900. The cost of groceries to ensure I didn’t starve for the total timespan was roughly $250. My transportation costs per week were about $40, which would total to $320 by the close of my time there. Two months’ worth of phone bills resulted in an additional $160 charge, and the cost of the roundtrip flights for me to even get to the city this internship was in cost a pinch over $300. Then lastly, the cost of tuition for me to get school credit for this internship was $312. So ultimately, in order for me to be able to take on this job I had to be able to commit $2,242, minimum. This, with no compensation to offset the whopping debit to my accounts.

The easy argument against my point is “Just don’t work there then! It’s not going to kill your resume to be without that one more internship.” Which is fair, and true. But it fails to look at the issue over a four-year college career.

A student who can take, let’s say, just three semester-long internships over their college career will be spending about 12 months committing to these jobs. More often than not that will result in that student spending 1/4th of their overall time in college going without any income. For a college student who is financially secure, which tends to mean parental support, this isn’t as much of a problem. They can complete these positions, add them to their resume, and score a phenomenal position fresh off the graduation stage. However, for students who are supporting themselves through college, these opportunities are far too often out of reach. Meaning that when they graduate, they will be without the same experience on their resume that wealthy students had. Resulting in them landing a less lucrative starting position and limiting their overall economic mobility. To put it simply: unpaid internships perpetuate the wealthy staying wealthy and the poor staying poor.

It’s not an issue of self-indulgent millennials thinking their time is so valuable that they must be swimming in cash in order to give it. It’s an issue of opportunities being largely limited from dedicated, competent, and deserving students due to their economic status. No student should ever have to receive an acceptance letter for an internship and decline it due to the fact that they can’t afford it. With college being the time that everyone is working their very hardest to prove themselves to future employers, it is essential that every student is given equal opportunity to do so.

Ursula Perano is an aspiring political journalist who seeks to promote awareness and accountability in the public sphere.