The Bane of Unpaid Internships

What’s worse than a student slaving away an entire summer—day in and day out—just to put something creditable on his or her resume? Not getting paid for it.

As winter fades away and spring begins anew, so does the mad dash for students to secure a summer internship. Unfortunately, unpaid summer internships have become the new norm in recent years. With youth unemployment hovering near 16 percent and entry-level jobs becoming increasingly scarce, employers now have the power to dictate the terms of summer employment. This boils down to good old-fashioned economics: Given that market supply of labor greatly outstrips demand, employers can both be extremely picky with whom they decide to bring on board and also get away with not compensating students for their time and energy.

The hypercompetitive job market for graduating students further amplifies this problem. Students looking to obtain a job post-graduation compete not just on their education, but more now than ever, on their work experience. Consequently, students are often willing to gain experience in a working environment regardless of whether they are paid or not.

Don’t get me wrong, paid internships still exist—but they are rare. About two-thirds of the jobs listed on Internships.com are unpaid. Those able to obtain paid positions, which can sometimes be utilized as either a stepping stone to a full-time job or consist of formal professional training, are the lucky few.  The once well-intentioned, paid summer training experience is becoming a relic of the past.

But students in these unpaid internships are not the only ones feeling their effect—the economy as a whole is hurting because of them.  Workers willing to take unpaid internships (typically privileged students with stable parental financial support) replace thousands of other qualified employees who cannot afford to work for free. These workers, without a job or some kind of income, must rely on the government to subsidize their living. And by government, I mean you, me, and every other taxpayer.

This system has the added effect of barring underprivileged students from participating in unpaid internships since they simply cannot afford to work for free. But there are broader effects produced by this type of internship boom, chiefly, constricted social and professional mobility and growing economic inequality.

Yet, there is hope!

I see three ways in which our present day internship system can be improved. First, as Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation has suggested, industries, employers, and colleges at the heart of the internship system can police themselves. This would require that these players create a system defined by enforceable internship standards. Second, employees, parents, teachers, and even the government can collectively take a stand against employers that engage in poor work practices. This combined pressure may be enough to nudge employers to offer better compensation for summer internships.

Finally, if neither of these comes to fruition, the responsibility to ultimately correct the market failures in the system falls solely on the government. Government watchdogs will need to be formed and then set loose to snag any employers that do not comply with government mandated and improved internship standards. Given the widespread effects of unpaid internships on society as a whole, it would only make sense for the government to level the playing field as a last resort.

As a student currently working toward securing a summer position, I can only hope that my summer isn’t defined by yet another unpaid internship.

Julian A. Lopez is a first year MPP student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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