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I’m lucky.  As much as I complain about my life I realize most of the time that I am very lucky:  I was lucky that my parents could afford to live in a neighborhood with excellent public schools; I was lucky that I come from a family that was not just willing but able to help pay for my education, and then later support my entire life when I left paid part-time work for unpaid internships.  My parents’ economic stability and sacrifices and my luck have afforded me a top education and some great work experience for my resume.  That’s just it, though, it was all luck on my part.  What if I had grown up just a few cities away and gone to one of the severely underfunded schools that dot the country?  I might not have achieved the grades I did.  I might not have gone to college.  I don’t ever have to find out, though.

Whether you realize it or not, that internship that you’re looking for or the one that you have plays a larger role in the socioeconomic fabric of the United States than just getting experience in your field.  As I wrote in my last post, internships are wonderful tools to gain experience and knowledge that the classroom does not and cannot teach.  The problem that arises from the internship is one of exploitation and class struggle.

In my experience, unpaid internships tend to be a cross section of students from the upper-middle and middle socioeconomic classes.  The students whose families can barely afford to send them to college, let alone support them through an unpaid internship, tend to fall by the wayside while those of us who were lucky enough to be born into financial stability reap the benefits of a system that rewards middle-class respectability.

It appears that the number of unpaid internships offered are on the rise.  According to a 2010 New York Times article, “Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University, sees definitive evidence that the number of unpaid internships is mushrooming … Employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.”  The idealist in me would have liked to believe that those internships are meant to be offers of mutually beneficial opportunities where the intern gets oversight by a trained and experienced professional and the company get to train and invest in the future of their company and industry by providing the experiences needed for success.  Reality shows that this is more likely exploitation of a perceived need for a competitive edge.

That same New York Times article goes on to state, “‘We’ve had cases where unpaid interns really were displacing workers and where they weren’t being supervised in an educational capacity,’ said Bob Estabrook, spokesman for Oregon’s labor department.”  Why pay for someone to work for you when a college student will do it for free?  Even otherwise well-meaning organizations tend to abuse the practice of unpaid internships.  A woman who works for a San Francisco area non-profit has expressed some frustration about how, though her organization works toward a cause she believes in,  it costs her money to be an unpaid intern, “It’s just frustrating because once you graduate from college, you have to start paying off your student loans and continue to pay for other bills/expenses while making ends meet at a part time job. And, on top of that, you have an internship and pay your own money for transportation costs and whatnot.”

This is not to say there are no regulations on the usage and legality of unpaid internships.  The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has a set of criteria regarding the usage and legality of unpaid interns to prevent such exploitative practices as hiring interns over paid employees.  One of those criterion clearly states, “The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.”  It seems there are very few instances where unpaid internships are legal.

Let me make it perfectly clear: I do not oppose unpaid internships as a general rule.  In fact, I believe that some of the laws that are set out by the DOL are a hindrance on businesses that genuinely want to help students. What I am opposed to is the way unpaid internships quietly enforce the gaps in equality amongst the socioeconomic classes and exploit their workers under the guise of giving students experience and a professional edge.

What I believe needs changing is the culture that surrounds internships.  Colleges and universities must make a greater effort to meet the needs of their lower income students by weeding out obviously predatory internships and making a more conscious effort to make available internships that include some form of financial compensation; there are cases of universities offering their students stipends in the case of unpaid internships.  Also, making students pay to apply the credit from unpaid internships makes colleges and universities as complicit in the exploitation as the companies.  Colleges and universities can make it easier for students to weed through possible “employers” by collecting and publishing qualitative and quantitative data from students and companies about their internships.  Unpaid interns must realize that though they are being given a great opportunity by the company, they have rights.  Abuses of unpaid interns must be reported for the sake of all.

I realized too late the exact ramifications and meaning of my unpaid internships.  I don’t necessarily regret all of them, but I am now more socially conscious of the ways that I use my luck and ambition.

Photo courtesy of k.steudel via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Check out the video below about how to turn an unpaid internship into a paid one!
How to Turn Unpaid Internship Into a Paid Entry Level Job

Have you ever had an unpaid internship? Did it have any positive or negatives? Post comments below!