Unpaid internships contribute to the wealth gap

Jordan Walker, Staff Writer

An increasing amount of students every year are choosing to settle for unpaid internships. Unfortunately, unpaid internships contribute to a widening income inequality gap because financially well-off students with larger networks have an easier time landing a paid internship than students from lower-income backgrounds, where family and friends do not usually have the same access to professional networks.

From my personal experiences with both paid and unpaid internships, an internship is more about the connections you make and little about what you actually learn. The knowledge you gain is a fancy line to fill on your resume, but the real value of an internship is the one or two contacts who may or may not help you in your next professional pursuit. Compared to the students who already have those connections through a relative or family friend, an unpaid internship is a huge gamble one takes in order to have that access.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of the U.S. Department of Labor defines the term “employ” as to suffer or permit to work, and those who are employed must be compensated under the law for the services they perform. However, the Supreme Court has held a broader interpretation for employment that allows internships to be unpaid as long as the work one completes as an intern serves an educational purpose. This is why many internships offer “course credit” for the educational benefit of the intern. The broad interpretation by the Supreme Court, however, has allowed an increasing number of employers, specifically government agencies and non-profit organizations, to replace entry-level jobs with unpaid internships. The problem is that students, myself included, have fallen for the irresistible yet ambiguous allure that an unpaid internship promises: a polished resume and a “foot in the door” to a future job.

The other question is whether unpaid internships actually benefit those who pay thousands of dollars on commuting, living and/or educational expenses, or if it is all a strategy created by organizations and agencies to hire free work while taking advantage of the anxieties of job-hungry and competitive undergraduates. According to the Wall Street Journal, a new survey shows that paid interns are far more likely to land a job offer and make more money after graduation than their unpaid peers, once again contributing to the wealth gap.

Additionally, the recent federal hiring freeze created by President Donald Trump’s administration is directly targeted at government jobs (excluding the military, national security, and public safety) and will have an effect not only on the internship hiring process, but also the hiring process in general. If it wasn’t hard enough completing one or more unpaid internships and graduating with college debt, now there is a federal hiring freeze which prevents college graduates from applying to full-time jobs to certain federal agencies unless they are hired from within the agency. Many employers and alumni have graduated only to find themselves placed in another underpaid internship that promises to open that professional door a little wider.

Unfortunately, we live in a system that values contacts and money more than talent. This system is bringing the “who you know, not what you know” idea to a new level. The agencies and organizations that claim to be equal-opportunity employers but also offer unpaid internships should reconsider the large pool of talent they exclude by offering an opportunity that perpetuates the wealth gap and puts an enormous amount of pressure on those who cannot afford an unpaid internship. Applicants may need to take out a student loan or undergo other financially stressful means in order to remain in the race for that entry-level job. An unpaid internship is the price one has to pay for digging themselves out of the financially disadvantaged hole they were already in, only to finally get out of it and still be under-qualified.

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