Opinion | Unpaid internships privilege wealthier students over working-class

By Nadiya Greaser, Staff Writer

Unpaid internships are one of those no-brainer solutions for a certain class of employers and students.

For white collar employers and middle to upper-class students, the established trade of free labor for industry connections and experience is beneficial. But for working-class, first-generation and minority students, the reality that you need to get paid to live, eat and participate in these systems supersedes the fantasy of the unpaid internship.

Many employers that would otherwise be required to compensate a skilled employee are able to take advantage of an unethical and inequitable system of uncompensated labor. And students whose way is paid — often by parents — are able to participate in these systems because the lack of compensation doesn’t harm them as much. This system ends up being most discriminatory and exclusionary to financially independent students.

Conditions for working-class and first-generation financially independent students are already much different than those of upper- and middle-class financially dependent students. Financially independent students and minority students are more likely to work part-time jobs, and to work more hours, than their financially dependent and white counterparts. In addition to working more hours than their higher-income, financially dependent peers, lower-income students are also less likely to have jobs related to their career goals, and less likely to have paid internships.

These working-class and lower-income students are less able to take on unpaid internships, especially, the coveted, competitive coastal internships that require relocating for a term or a summer. So many internships, especially before the COVID-19 pandemic, required relocating, typically without a stipend or pay. These positions are inaccessible to most students who spend summers living and working at home, and who don’t have the parental bankroll required to pay for a pricey sublet in a city.

So while some students are spending summers working nearly 40 hours a week in minimum wage positions, relying on tips and paying down predatory private loans, kids with a sweet parental set-up get industry experience, professional contacts and resumé filler from high-profile companies.

As Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, wrote for the New York Times, “America’s current internship system, in which contacts and money matter more than talent, contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.” Walker highlights the ways that unpaid internships become an additional privilege for already privileged students.

This is a system that is so entrenched and so exploitative that federal and state regulators have investigated employers for illegally using interns for free labor. Officials in New York, California and other states began investigating and fining employers in 2010. Because they are uncompensated labor, interns are also not protected by the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

This means that unpaid interns are especially vulnerable to discrimination and harassment, and states like California have recognized this and specifically protect interns with legislation such as the Fair Employment and Housing Act. This system of unpaid labor is widely recognized as being unethical, discriminatory and sometimes illegal, but it persists because it is incredibly profitable.

But as much as it profits employers and companies in the short term, the long term consequences of unpaid internships affect everyone. For working class students, being denied the short-term opportunities to develop skills and make professional connections means that they start from behind when they enter the workforce. And by shutting out these students, and self-selecting for privilege, entire industries, including journalism, deny themselves the innovation, skill and perspective that working-class, first-generation and minority students have to offer.

Industries that rely heavily on unpaid intern labor end up looking like European royals circa the 18th century — white, insular and sorely lacking any real-world perspective. And when career fields, especially tech, engineering and journalism look more like a French monarchy than the American dream, they become echo chambers for privileged positions.

The people who are most able to fill unpaid internships, and who most easily receive the attendant advantages, are also the people who are least likely to see the privilege and inequity involved in the internship system.

Nadiya Elyse Greaser is a queer, disabled writer who is interested in the intersections of identity and communal living. Write to her at [email protected].