When I began college a few years ago, I learned to expect that I wouldn’t get offered a paid internship until right before or after I graduated. And that was only if I was lucky.
Everyone around me talked about unpaid internships like they were the norm, like there wasn’t really another option. For the most part, all of the adults around me thought the same thing. So, when I was offered an unpaid internship the summer after my freshman year, I quickly accepted. Although it was an incredible learning opportunity that I am so thankful to have gotten so early on, it will never compare to the internships I have had since where I have been compensated for my time and work.
The debate surrounding unpaid internships isn’t new, and it’s not going away anytime soon. But the conversation is evolving. The push for paid internships is no longer just about addressing exploitative business practices; it’s about the exclusion of underprivileged students from the candidate pool.
On average, it costs $6,800 for a student to complete an unpaid internship. This number accounts for housing, transportation, meals and more, but it doesn’t factor in tuition costs if the student is using the internship for academic credit. Luckily for me, I was able to live at home to minimize how much it cost me to accept my unpaid internship. Many others don’t have that luxury.
Not every student can afford the experience of an unpaid internship. Many need to maintain a year-round income, forcing them to choose between financial security and the learning opportunity an internship would provide, effectively shutting them out of opportunities open to more financially privileged students.
By favoring those who can afford them, unpaid internships give a leg up to students from more affluent backgrounds. It’s important to note that the household wealth for white families is eight times higher than it is for Black families, and five times higher than for Hispanic families. In addition, families of color struggle to avoid student debt or debt incurred while working an unpaid internship more than white families do.
In addition to the economic inequality these positions perpetuate, students who cannot afford to accept an unpaid internship, and cannot secure a paid one, often graduate with a résumé
that is less competitive. It leaves them with fewer post-grad job opportunities, as many employers say that internship experience is the most influential factor they consider when deciding between two otherwise evenly qualified candidates.
This disparity can also result in issues beyond the exclusion of a large portion of the workforce. Students who take unpaid internships often accept less than they are worth once they are in a paid role.
Despite the fact that unpaid internships are exclusive to those that can afford them, and that they perpetuate negative diversity, equity and inclusion issues in the workforce, an estimated 500,000 Americans intern for free every year. I was one of them a couple years ago, and chances are you know someone could say the same.
So, why do unpaid internships still exist?
By serving as an extension of the entry-level team, interns gain hands-on experience, develop the skills necessary to thrive in their future careers and bring fresh perspectives and ideas to their employer. Some students even need an internship to qualify for graduation, and they pay tuition costs to receive credit. So, for some students, taking on the financial burden of an unpaid internship is worth it to get the experience and fulfill their graduation requirements. But for others, taking on that burden isn’t an option.
Students who take unpaid internships are not necessarily better off, also. While it’s known that employers look for internship experience on résumés, it has been proven that, on average, unpaid interns end up with the same number of job offers as their peers who never had an internship. These unpaid internships claim to help students gain experience, build networks and, eventually, get a job, but in reality, many of them don’t provide students with anything other than financial stress.
Students shouldn’t have to feel obligated to take on a financial burden just to have a chance at furthering their careers. Paid a living wage, candidates of all financial backgrounds and experience levels will have a chance at enhancing their career goals prior to graduation, not just those with financial means. Additionally, ensuring that no one is excluded from candidate pools helps increase company diversity, which is proven to drive innovation, generate higher revenue and lead to better business decisions.
The good news is that whether you’re a student looking to intern or an employer looking to hire interns, you can help solve the problem. By paying interns, companies can take a step toward creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment and increase the value of the experience for both the intern and the team they’re working with.
Everyone benefits when interns are fairly compensated for their work, and it’s time for unpaid internships to be a thing of the past.
Erin Lewis is the 2021-2022 vice president of events and fundraising for PRSSA National. Graduating in May 2022, she is majoring in public relations with a minor in event management and a certificate in international communication at the University of Florida. Connect with her on LinkedIn.