Around this time last year, I remember asking my Johns Hopkins students what their summer plans were. As soon as the question left my mouth, I could tell it was a mistake. Apart from the few who had solid gigs as lifeguards or research assistants, most of these bright and dedicated kids were still searching for someone who would let them work for the summer… for free. Once an optional half-step up the career ladder, the unpaid internship has become something of a necessity. According to new research, more than 90 percent of employers think that students should have completed at least a couple internships before graduating. And that, according to Atlantic editor Derek Thompson, is a big problem, because “unpaid internships aren’t morally defensible.”
Yikes. Those are some strong words. But Thompson has the arguments to back it up. First of all, a career track founded on unpaid internships (as is common in politics, research, journalism, and non-profits) hurts low-income students. “These students need work that pays money, but they also need an internship to work in the field. As a result, poorer students are at permanent disadvantage in the summer internship market,” Thompson writes. Even for students who aren’t in precarious economic positions, the unpaid internship is a shaky deal. Employers reap the benefits of bright young minds, but don’t have to offer up any job security, benefits, or actual money. According to the Labor Department’s guidelines, unpaid internships have to satisfy three requirements: they must be more like education than a job; interns can’t work in place of paid employees; and their work must not be of “immediate benefit” to their employer. As Thompson notes, “these rules are flouted more routinely than speed limits.”
While innovative programs, such as the Johns Hopkins Community Impact Internship that we profiled last year, attempt to close the gap by paying students a living wage for their internship experience, Thompson argues that this is just a stop-gap measure that can’t address the system’s underlying inequality. If students are doing work, they should get paid a salary. What do you think: are unpaid internships so exploitative that they should be trashed? Or is there some other solution?