Opinion

Unpaid internships: Why they should stop

By an Anonymous Writer

Plenty of college students are on the lookout for an internship. These positions help them gain experience in the field they want to enter, and it gives them a leg up as an applicant for entry level jobs. 

Unpaid internships, in particular, are common, because what company wants to pay their workers?

The United States Department of Labor has a primary beneficiary test that is supposed to help determine whether or not an intern is actually considered a worker under the law. This determines who needs to be paid and who does not.

According to the test, if the company primarily benefits from the intern, then the intern must be considered a worker. If the intern is the primary beneficiary, hence the name of the test, then they do not need to be paid.

This test has seven different criteria points; not all need to be met in order for an intern to be considered an employee. Because the test criteria is relatively vague and says that the status of employment is dependent “on the unique circumstances of each case,” the terms of an unpaid internship are rather unclear.

Unpaid internships are an issue for a few reasons. For one, interns are often providing companies with valuable work that help the company make money, while the intern is told that their compensation is the “experience” they gain from the job. 

This ties in with the issue of the primary beneficiary test because a company could pretty much always argue that they are benefitting the intern. 

However, any paid job can be considered an experiential position. That doesn’t mean that the workers aren’t getting paid because the job they are at may help them get a different job in the future. 

At my first ever job back in high school, I didn’t have any customer service experience. Throughout my time in that position, I gained that skill along with cashier and food service experience, but since I provided a service to the company, I got paid. 

My gaining experience and being one of the beneficiaries in that employee-company relationship did not take away from the fact that I provided a service to help them make money.

Internships are no different. Unless an intern is merely shadowing and watching, they end up helping the company in some way and should be paid for their time.

As a student myself, I have been looking for summer internships to apply to because I know how important they are. Many of the internships I have come across are great opportunities, but some of the job descriptions explicitly state that the interns will be creating content, whether it be writing articles or producing other work, for the company to use.

These internships I have described are also unpaid. It is true that the interns will be gaining valuable experience, however the intern is clearly providing work for the organization that will help them make money. In this case, interns are directly producing content that the company will use.

Ultimately, however, the most important issue that arises from unpaid internships is that many students cannot afford to do a job that they aren’t paid for. 

Unpaid internships end up perpetuating an elitist cycle where already privileged students are the only ones who can really afford to work for nothing. Those students may ultimately end up with better job opportunities because of their ability to afford to work as an intern for free.

Plenty of students are often going to school full time (which is a way to qualify for financial aid), as well as working full time to pay their tuition fees, rent, and other living costs. These students aren’t able to work 20 hours a week at an internship that pays them nothing.

Unfortunately, an unpaid summer internship looks better on a resume than four years of paid work at a minimum wage food service job.

Internships need a revamp. Whether this means payment for internships, or even better, entry level jobs not requiring internships for hire—so students don’t have to worry about getting that “three years of experience required” all during their time as an undergrad. This way, students are on more even footing when entering the workforce, no matter their financial background.

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