Pay Your Interns: The Unsustainable Cycle of Unpaid Internships

“The fight for paid internships is a hill I’m willing to die on” – Steve Ryan, my Public Relations Portfolio professor. 

In the United States, internships are an essential steppingstone from higher education into the workforce. Internships allow students to experience the workplace through a lower-stakes commitment, test out possible career paths, and put their skills to use in the real world. Statistically, candidates who completed an internship are 16% more likely to receive a job offer than those who did not. Beyond this, many universities and colleges require internships to be completed as a major or graduation requirement.  

There are countless benefits of internships that both statistics, and I personally, can attest to. At the same time, this rise in the need for internship experience highlights one of the most touchy topics: unpaid internships. 

What’s the big deal? Well, let me ask you: would you work for free?  

Unpaid internships are unsustainable. Although college can seem like a sheltered in-between stage of life, it’s a constant crunch of budgeting money and time. We have expenses, lots of them. College students are paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for classes. Then add food and housing costs on top of this. Then transportation to and from the internship. Then the purchase of business attire. The time spent at an unpaid internship also cuts down on potential time spent working and earning at a job, however, many students do not have the time to work another job.  

Using Temple University’s credit-hour system, the average full-time student is dedicating 45 hours per week to their classes. That’s already more than the typical 40-hour American workweek. Adding an internship with an ask of 20 hours a week is equivalent to 65 hours of work commitment. Keep in mind this does not include extracurricular involvement. A student with an unpaid internship is easily looking at 70-hour weeks with no way to pay the bills.  Unpaid internships sacrifice time and money and create undue hardship in the name of experience.   

If they are so bad, why do they still exist? As of 2019, 43% of internships were unpaid. Unpaid internships are legal because interns technically do not have to be considered employees. It is also a cost-saving move for companies; many offer course credit as opposed to payment. Some financially stable students are able to accept these unpaid internships. All of these factors lead to a toxic cycle of keeping internships unpaid.   

Students will continue to apply to these unpaid opportunities for experience and college requirements. Students over-work themselves and dig deep into debt.  That’s if they can even consider these unpaid opportunities.  Unpaid internships perpetuate privilege. Not everyone can take out loans or receive financial help from family. The number of potential opportunities for those unable to take unpaid internships are almost cut in half. This makes a lasting difference and means that college students have fewer chances to explore different paths and fewer internships on a resume when applying for jobs. College students deserve better and more sustainable opportunities when building their resumes, and unpaid internships are not the solution.

—Ashleigh Lake, Account Associate

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