For the liberal arts major, internships are the cornerstone of college life. Few of us would easily be able to find jobs without internships or a more specialized graduate school curriculum. For my major, political science, the benefit from an internship is prestige. As the theory goes, you meet the right people and gain the right connections which will eventually lead to a career of your dreams.
Students are noticing the importance of internships in increasing numbers. A survey by MonsterTrak.com found that 78 percent of undergraduates currently enrolled plan to complete an internship for pay or school credit before graduation.
Since political offices and nonprofit organizations are always very short of funds, they don?t feel obligated to squeeze out a few bucks for struggling interns. But since political science majors are so plentiful relative to job opportunities, fierce competition for jobs after graduation practically requires a willingness to do mind-numbing work for free. Yet, in business and medical sectors, very few internships are unpaid.
This is a reality of the labor market today, but this state of affairs creates tremendous inequality of opportunity. Only those students with a form of external support such as parents or student loans can afford to take on an unpaid internship, especially one in another city with very high costs of living.
Since there are only so many hours in a day, very few students can successfully manage a job that will pay all the bills, an unpaid internship or two, a full course load and still make it out of the semester alive. Thus, those students without substantial financial support will have to gravitate toward those careers with high demand for workers and internships that pay a decent salary.
The path to getting a decent internship is increasingly a vicious circle. You have to have had internships on your r?sum? to be able to get one. If you?ve had to work for your money as a waiter every summer out of necessity, you?re never going to stand out of the crowd that applies for the most competitive internships. While it?s disconcerting to think about in what is supposedly a meritocratic country, the majority of those who end up getting the most competitive internships may not have even been the most qualified, but those with the best insider connections who pulled a few strings.
Employers presumably love unpaid internships. They don?t have to pay their interns, the interns finish tedious unskilled work that no one else wants to do, and the interns get real-world experience and connections they will need for the labor market. So everyone wins, right?
Not quite. The reality of the work environment at most unpaid internships provides an incentive to slack off. A 1998 survey also found that internship quality is correlated with whether it pays or not. It makes sense: Why should I put my heart into work I?m not even being paid for? In addition, the work interns are assigned to do is often not a good reflection of what workers in that sector of the labor force do on a daily basis. Just because you?ve mastered data entry in Excel does not mean you?ve learned good interpersonal skills or the ability to multitask.
Unpaid internships may sound beneficial in theory or at worst harmless, but in practice they devalue members of the labor force. They create an underclass of students who are not subject to minimum wage laws and who actually consider themselves lucky for the opportunity to work for free.
This underclass loses the ability to break even financially during the summer, much less come out ahead with savings. Sometimes students can manage to get college credit for unpaid internships, but often they are completely uncompensated.
What sounds like a fantastic summer of research and analysis when you?re applying can easily turn into a never-ending, tedious project consisting of transcribing, summarizing and periodic coffee-fetching. As important as this work might be for the organization, you never get the kind of respect and appreciation that you would doing more visible and skilled labor.
It?s very important for prospective interns to know exactly what projects they will be doing in the unpaid internship and what skills they can expect to gain. While it?s unlikely that employers will look beyond their bottom line and stop offering unpaid, unfulfilling internships, they should consider the probable effects on their work force. Even if they don?t care that their interns are struggling to make ends meet, they should care about the quality of work they are likely to deliver.
Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and economics.