This summer, Vassar students may engage in a wide number of opportunities, ranging from internships, to fellowships, research, or, of course, catching up on their favorite shows on Netflix. For those seeking job opportunities know very well the chaos that is ongoing right now, writing applications and sending off résumés for consideration. I myself am neck deep in this process and I’ve grown disturbed by the prevalence of the unpaid internship. The unpaid internship shouldn’t exist for a number of reasons, as it not only excludes those who cannot afford to take on the expenses of working for free, but also offers meager compensation for often full-time work under the guise of “work experience.”
Many know what the unpaid internship entails: Often it will take the shape of the Craigslist ad, listing “unpaid” under compensation. Sometimes it’s clearly stated, and other times it’s slyly mentioned just once so as to prevent deterring away candidates. In the end, the facts are the same: There’s no pay, and often not even a reimbursement for travel, housing or food. I once remember seeing an unpaid internship over the summer through a Craigslist ad that actually mentioned “free coffee” as a perk. These unpaid internships are alongside other opportunities in the highly-coveted technology sector, where internships at Google, Microsoft, Apple and other top firms pay more like starting salaries than summer wages.
In either case, unpaid internships exist and are far from going away. The fact is simply that there’s not really any policy behind what makes a firm worthy of an intern or not. 1.5 million students take to the summer internship each summer, and many are willing to settle for less-competitive unpaid internships close to home as opposed to vying for more competitive, but paid opportunities elsewhere. There is a standard that the unpaid internship must offer a learning experience for the student, but it remains a process that is scarcely regulated. This policy is set by the Department of Labor, but it’s hard for students to blow the whistle. An intern did just that at Condé Nast, suing for compensation because of the long hours and hard work. Not only did it cause the end of the Condé Nast internship program, but it also ended her prospects in the magazine industry (New York Times, “Sued Over Pay, Condé Nast Ends Internship Program” 10.23.13).
Perhaps the worst offender of the unpaid internship in the United States, contrary to what you may expect, is our own government. Only a minority of federal agencies and offices issue paid internships, the majority choosing not to for ethical reasons. This is often the case for people who work with their senators or representatives, but it also holds true for the highly coveted White House Internship program. Though you’d expect a more accessible White House today, in reality the program remains unpaid unless you are a White House Fellow, excluding dozens of students each year who work there. This in turn makes even the most desirable programs in the country inaccessible to students who can’t afford the high-priced lifestyle of Washington D.C.
Even if you could, with some elbow grease and creative financing, afford to take an unpaid internship, the issues don’t end there. A lack of regular pay from an already-stressful job will only be intensified by trying to make ends meet each and every week during your internship.
I am surprised that a nation that is beginning to look so inward on the inequality gap has continued to ignore the travesty that our nation’s internship regulation policy is.
It’s also quite frankly a bad business practice to offer unpaid internships. I know, the idea of free labor is very appealing, but when you see it from a number of perspectives, it motivates a poor corporate philosophy that breeds much harder internal gains and a harder time running a business in the long term. You see, internships should not just be opportunities for a smart company to get young and ambitious workers, but to scout for future members of its company, and help recruit for strong and loyal employees in the years ahead. When companies introduce possible future employees with a zero or low-pay experience right off the bat, that speaks volumes to a student who has a lifestyle of expenses, not income. A smart firm would pay its interns well to make a highly coveted program and in turn yield highly coveted potential employees who believe in the company’s corporate philosophy before they even become employees.
In the end, it seems to me like a no brainer—every company should at least ensure its interns are not burdened by working for their company. The key word here is work, not play, and especially not learn. Yes, technically an unpaid internship is meant to teach, but you are also expected to work, and anyone who puts in a good effort at a company deserves at a fair wage or stipend at the very least. Every company can think what it will, but any company that doesn’t pay or reimburse its workers in any capacity is not representing a good business model, nor a good future for its human resources. Such a style is and continues to be toxic.
—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.