Why College Interns Deserve To Be Paid

College students should be paid for their internships


Sep. 19 2017, Published 3:00 a.m. ET

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In today’s competitive job market, my experience-seeking peers and I are pretty much required to have internship experience listed on our résumés before entering the job market. Many college majors now require students to complete at least one internship while in school, and as a member of the class of 2018 at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in The Bronx, I feel it’s almost mandatory to do multiple internships – not only for the experience, but to stand out in a hiring manager’s inbox full of résumés.

The problem with this is the cost. Many internships are unpaid. And most college students are already scraping by as it is. So asking them to make the difficult decision between chasing what they need right now (a part-time job to pay for food, rent, gas, and school supplies), or long-term gain (an internship that may provide industry contacts and experience that could prove valuable down the road) puts them in an extremely difficult position. They don’t want to jeopardize their future, but they also have to figure out a way to survive the present moment.

It’s frustrating to think about how, every semester, many talented, qualified, hardworking students are forced to turn down important internship opportunities because they can’t afford to work for free. Talent, of course, is everywhere, but opportunity, sadly, is not. And offering unpaid internships creates an imbalance that sees the best opportunities go to those who can afford to seize them. The reality is that most internships – even “paid” ones – end up costing students money. Once you factor in transportation and/or living expenses, paying the university for any academic credits that are received for doing the work, and the time lost that could have been spent earning money a paying part-time job, internships are not always a feasible option for students.

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Sure, a few are able to cobble together enough money through that various loans and financial aid that are available to students. But that places a significant hardship on students who are already graduating with record-breaking amounts of debt. How can they know whether taking on the additional financial burden will pay off in the form of a salaried job later on? And yeah, they could try to find a part-time internship that would give them a little more freedom to supplement that $0 income with a side hustle. But, let’s not forget they are still college students who need time to study, write papers, and figure out who they are and what they want out of life.

No matter what, millennials can’t seem to win when it comes to unpaid internships. I’ve watched my peers who didn’t take them struggle to find jobs after graduation. Many move back in with their parents to afford doing those unpaid internships after they already have a degree. 

Companies may think offering unpaid internships is a fiscal win, but the truth is they lose too. As we’ve established, the students who are able to take on this unpaid work often do not represent the broad spectrum of talent from all socioeconomic backgrounds. And yet, after putting these barriers in place, companies complain that they can’t find “diverse” candidates with experience. You know the oft-talked about “broken” pipeline? This is where the disconnect comes from.

I’m not arguing that interns should expect extravagant salaries or perks. But they they should be fairly compensated for the contributions they make during their time at a company.

When a company offers paid internships, it create more equal opportunities for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Companies should allow students to be vocal about issues that might be a hindrance to them while completing their internship and work with them to tackle these potential problems. If they do, students get equal access to valuable career experience, and companies increase their pool of qualified candidates. In the end, everyone wins.

This piece originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s digital magazine.

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