Unpaid internships devalue students


Sophomore electrical engineering major Colin Schwerin talks with CE Power Solutions business development manager Alex Janesz at the Career fair Lexington, Ky., at the Student Center on Tuesday, September 24, 2013. Photo by Emily Wuetcher

By the editorial board

You want employment experience prior to graduation, and an internship seems like a logical course of action, but is it worth it, if you have to pay for it and possibly pay for it more than once?

Unfortunately, this is often the case when it comes to college students, and immediate change is needed to solve this problem.

For many technical fields, paid internships are the norm, but there are inherent biases (gender, racial, and socioeconomic) that should be recognized, and overcome.

The number of minorities, women, and lower income students tend to lag in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or “STEM” professions, which historically pay their interns, thereby skewing their numbers in the arts fields, where unpaid internships are unfortunately the norm. 

While an inferior educational environment for the poor and a lack of encouragement for women in general contribute in large part to this disparity in the STEM versus Arts professional spectrum, the casual acceptance of it as mirrored in paid versus unpaid internships is a paradigm that must be questioned. 

In the last several years, litigation has begun to turn the tide in favor of the “intern” class. Class action suits give weight to the issue, as was the case in the fashion industry in early 2014 with a favorable ruling against Elite Model Management awarding backpay to interns.

Magazine publisher Conde Nast was similarly challenged the year before. Ultimately, legislative change to the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division and Fair Labor Standards Act may be necessary to reconcile the issue and cement the gains.

Those gains are imperative, given insight afforded to us by research like that conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The survey results revealed two important findings.

First, unpaid interns graduating from college who did not take an internship were about equally likely to find employment, but those with paid internships were approximately 75 percent more likely to do so. Second, the latter group also secured starting salaries over 40 percent higher.

So, paid internships are imperative to both future employment and high-income attainment. Without changing the system, this trend will continue, and has the possibility to get worse.

The chasm between the technical professions and the arts, while starting to close, must close faster. The liberal arts professions, the fashion industry, and yes, even the media, will benefit greatly from managing the inequity divide.

Simply acknowledging that all interns, by delivering value to their employers, deserve adequate compensation is a good first step.

It is also necessary for the student intern to demand that same point. Otherwise, they will pay for their internship “opportunities,” by personally financing their work, and by sacrificing future employment and pay. This is a cost that most can’t afford.

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