Op-ed: Unpaid internships are an inequitable and insulting approach to young professional development

Unpaid internships give opportunities that some companies might not otherwise provide but at a cost to less privileged students. Graphic by Kamrin Baker and Lyle Kwiatkowski

Kamrin Baker

On the last day of my summer internship last year, I was given a package of peanut M&Ms, and that was the only tangible compensation I had received for three and a half months of part-time work.  I spent the summer writing stories, organizing content for a publication and even driving around the city to take photographs—all for a treat that lasted about two minutes at my desk.

As a journalism student, I have been told countless times that my industry is dying, almost justifying that internships helping to keep print publications afloat are a mandatory way out. By hiring one (or more) college students to do a portion of work in a publication without pay allows the publisher to turn more of a profit, forgoing the expense of an employee while still benefiting from their labor.

John Kretzschmar has been the director at UNO’s William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies since 1980. His program works to “provide education to the women and men of Nebraska’s labor movement to help them be effective in initiating and defending meaningful workplace democracy.”

“Roughly 90 percent of the workforce are wage earners; people who sell their intelligence, experience and strength to employers to earn a living,” Kretzschmar said. “Internships offer experiences that may well lead to future jobs, which is quite desirable. Unpaid internships offer the same experiences, but at a cost to the provider that keeps the cost of doing business as low as possible.”

Therefore, the issue of unpaid internships—while prevalent in many fields— is a decision that varies from provider to provider. The ethics and legality of the issue are a bit of a grey matter, but from my personal experience, “experience” is not enough.

It is important to acknowledge that the societal injustice of unpaid internships is at the root of their existence.

For low-income students who need a paying job to cover their education and living expenses, unpaid internships simply are not an option.

In an article in “the Atlantic,” writer Derek Thompson said: unpaid internships “create a setup where an entire profession effectively shuts out the very large proportion of the college-aged population who do not have parents (or some other rich benefactor) that can afford to subsidize living costs for however long they need to gain the extensive and unpaid experience necessary.”

My privilege allowed me to take an unpaid internship, and now looking at it in hindsight, enabled the cycle of upper class workers gaining mentorship and professional development where low-income students will go unseen for their strengths and abilities.

That being said, I do not think experience is always a commodity.

Following up on my privilege allowing me access to exposure and experience, I honestly don’t think I even gained much. Had I been going through crash-courses in the Adobe Suite or participating in leadership seminars during my time as an intern, I would have felt more valued and assisted as a student seeking professional development.

Instead, it was my skills (which, I will remind you once again, have been honed through the investment of paying college tuition) that got me in the door to a publication to complete work for their advancement; not mine.

Convincing students they need to work for someone for free, doing things that they have spent time and money learning to accomplish, is manipulative. Workplace experience is a necessary avenue for young professionals, but experience and exposure cannot replace a deposit in the bank account.

I implore organizations that provide internships to consider how their programs can positively impact a future workforce of diverse, gifted people. By valuing and shaping their contributions and cultivating the abilities they inherently possess through compensation, we create room for authentic growth and meaningful connections that can make magic in any workplace.

Who knows—by paying someone a living wage, we might even keep print journalism alive.