Pro/Con: Unpaid Internships

by Staff

Madison Hopkins, Senior Staff Columnist

PRO: Unpaid internships are worth the time

Last summer, I interned at a small radio station where I received no pay. For two months I showed up to work at 5:45 in the morning, powered by caffeine and the youthful excitement that came from feeling like a real-life radio reporter. While it took some serious time to grow accustomed to the world of cheery morning people, I definitely left my internship with more knowledge and hands-on experience than I’d gathered from any other career-related training of my life.

Sure, I wish these benefits were more tangible in a financial sense, but I figured I was lucky enough just to have the experience. Lucky is exactly what I was, not only to be able to rely on the generosity of my parents during my zero-cash arrangement, but also to have found an opening with little competition and a boss who was more interested in my career development than my ability to make coffee.

In my case, an unpaid internship worked out exactly as it was supposed to, but only because the odds were in my favor. Technically speaking, an unpaid internship is only legal when the intern gains more from the experience than the intern sponsor receives in labor. And while I benefited from just that, I admit I clearly had an unfair advantage. For those who can’t rely on experience and opportunities when it comes time to pay the rent, I am the bane of their existence. I am the free labor willing to do the same work for literally none of the pay. And how is anyone supposed to compete with that?

In the cutthroat job market, most students are desperately trying to pad our resumes with every opportunity we can get our ambitious little fingers on. This does two things.

For one, it attracts enough qualified applicants for internships to allow organizations to be extremely picky. In return, students do all they can to stand out from the pack, including undercutting the competition with lower and lower standards. Sometimes these standards are as easy as agreeing to work without pay. At other times, it could mean accepting the idea that making coffee and copies is a worthwhile use of their time. Even if this work can oftentimes bring no educational advancements and only a meaningless line on a resume.

While students are supposed to receive financial compensation for work, the risk of losing a letter of recommendation or other benefit likely dissuades participants from speaking out against illegal labor practices. With an endless pool to draw from, an intern who complains is one who is easily replaceable.

While the possibility to undermine standards in the workplace still exists, the downward cycle will always leave opportunities for greedy organizations to abuse the ambitions of desperate students. Some organizations remain responsible with their obligation to instill wisdom in young minds, but it would be naive to believe the majority don’t just jump at the chance for free labor. Unfortunately, regulations and guidelines are necessary to prevent parties on both sides of the equation from taking advantage of unfair or illegal situations. The best solution to equalize opportunities and experiences is to demand pay for all internships.

Morgan Rubin, Contributor

CON: Unpaid internships are a necessary evil

There comes a time in each student’s college career when they must go beyond what they’ve learned in the classroom, and get a glance at what awaits them in the real world. I am, of course, talking about internships. Almost every major requires or encourages them for graduation, which makes them unavoidable.

Some departments at San Diego State, such as the School of Journalism and Media Studies, are set up so students can take a course that allows you to have a “for credit” internship during the last semester of senior year. Until then, a student’s only other options are non-profit or paid internships.

The problem with paid internships is the process of actually getting one. Since they are pretty much paid part-time jobs related to the professional field you plan to go into, that makes them much more desirable and competitive. Would you rather work at a job you don’t really care about while interning for credit or at a non-profit, or would you rather make money while gaining experience with one internship? I bet a lot of students would pick the latter.

What if you find an internship that fits into your schedule, is related to where you want your career to go and where you know you will learn a lot, but it’s at a for-profit company, and you can’t take it for credit yet. Do you let go of that amazing opportunity?

Realistically, it depends. When it’s an “internship” where interns are getting people coffee, answering phones and running errands, it isn’t a real internship, and you should be getting paid. The whole point of internships is to get hands-on experience, but if the employers take advantage of the intern by making them do menial tasks, they aren’t actually learning anything. However, if a public relations intern is being taught how to write press releases, build media lists and learn how to pitch to reporters, that internship exists for the benefit of the intern, not the company. In fact, the Fair Labor Standard Act, created by the Department of Labor, outlines how an internship has to be “for the benefit of the intern” and “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.” Furthermore, the Department of Labor clarifies how “(an employer providing) the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” As long as these standards are met, interning at a for-profit company is legal and should be pursued.

In a perfect world, all internships would be paid. Such a change would definitely make life easier for broke college students, but that’s not going to happen. Many students will come across opportunities that will help further their careers. As long as they give us real and valuable experience, unpaid internships have the potential to help us make the step from bright-eyed college students to ambitious professionals ready to take on the world.