Unpaid internships

These bother me.

The jobs that full-time students can get during the school year are usually low-paying, part-time retail or food-service positions. Many colleges are in small towns where nothing else is available even if students did have time to devote to them — but they don’t. And many students don’t work paying jobs at all during the school year so they can focus on their schoolwork.

Therefore, most students work as much as possible during the summer so they can accumulate enough money to last them through the school year.

When I was in college, I couldn’t afford not to get paid in the summer. And I was luckier than most — my mother graciously paid for my education. I still had some (relatively low) expenses, so I worked to pay them.

In New York (and probably other places), it’s normal and common for companies to offer unpaid internships. The interns are usually doing valuable, skilled, nontrivial work. Often, they’re picking up excess load from paid employees and doing the same tasks. They’re not just getting coffee and making copies… they’re doing real work. The same work that people get paid for.

But it costs money to be here, and this just helps contribute to the growing income and opportunity gap. The only people who can afford to take unpaid internships are the locals (so the student can stay at home) and the rich.

A middle-class student from Pennsylvania can’t afford to take an unpaid internship in New York: it would cost him thousands of dollars just to live here for the summer, and he’d lose the opportunity to make a salary at a paying job.

Why is it right to penalize those less wealthy in an educational setting? Why can employers bypass the minimum wage and get free labor by using a special word that often serves only to indicate the unpaid status?

Don’t say your company can’t afford to pay interns. We both know that’s not true. If their work has value, you can compensate them for it. If it doesn’t have value, why should you waste their time and yours? Why should anyone do it?

If interns are doing valuable work, pay them.