Unpaid Internships: Challenging and Rethinking the Process

unpaid internships

Classroom learning can be an invaluable tool for education in a student’s future field, but undeniably, one of the best ways for college students or recent graduates to get experience in the area that they plan to work in is to get an internship to receive hands on experience. Internships also have major benefits, from gaining references and connections, to having a lot more job experience and possibly even gaining employment with the company the student is interning with. However, for the majority of the time that students have been taking internships to learn the ins and outs of what having a job in their field entails, the fact has remained that some internships have paid their student workers, and some have not, creating a major controversy over the unfairness of the companies having free labor. Critics of the unpaid internships have been challenging and rethinking the process, coming up with alternatives of how the programs could go on with the students being fully compensated for their work.

So why would students work for an entire semester (or two) with no pay? The reason for this is that the internship is mutually beneficial (usually). The company gets the work from the student, and the student gets the job experience, connections, references, and even a potential chance to be employed with the company if they do good work and there happens to be an opening at some point while they are there. That being said, some internships are do not offer the benefits that one would think, and some are notorious for making students do “coffee runs”, and other small tasks that have nothing to do with their future profession, which results in essentially free labor with no benefit at all to the student, so he or she does not gain a full working experience.

About half of all internship are unpaid, and the regulations for whether an internship can be legally unpaid anymore are getting iffy. According to the U.S. Labor Department, non-profit employers can only have unpaid internships if the intern is getting more out of the internship than is the company (for example, if the intern is getting academic credit for the internship as well as job experience and a shot at getting hired, then an unpaid internship is fine). However, if the employer is the one that primarily benefits from the arrangement (he or she is getting more out of it, such as free labor, while the intern is only working for free), than generally the internship is not legal.

Another major factor that has been causing opponents of unpaid internships to be challenging and rethinking the whole process is that unpaid interns are not protected by the same safety laws as those employed by a company. These include most rights generally provided by workplaces, and most importantly, anti-harassment laws.

A major step in the right direction for the challenging and rethinking of unpaid internships, however, was a law signed into effect by Mayor Bill de Blasio in mid-April in New York City, which now gives unpaid interns the right to sue if they are discriminated against or harassed by an employer. The legislation was passed unanimously, and is in the process of going into effect, which it will in mid-June.

By Laura Clark


Kansas City Star

The New York Times


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