Unpaid Internships: The real consequences of ‘just grinning and bearing it’

by Avery Kelly

Unpaid internships are quickly gaining a bad reputation. Some of the most well-known companies and organizations that use them — like P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Entertainment and even ‘lean-in’ enthusiast Sheryl Sandberg’s non-profit, have been continuously slammed by mass media criticism over the past few months.

Simply typing the phrase into Google shows the gravity of the current popular attack on unpaid internships, as the first link suggestion brings you to the country’s most visited “Unpaid Interns Lawsuit Website.” Sites like this one are popping up more and more frequently to allow a growing group of interested people to easily seek legal counsel in order to determine the legality of interning without pay for any period over the past six years (which, of course, could probably pertain to almost all Sewanee students and recent graduates).

The main argument driving the unpaid internship debate seems to be that employers around the country, especially big name conglomerates that offer round upon round of perpetual unpaid internships that are arguably responsible for sustaining day-to-day company efficiency, are cutting themselves a cheap break by turning kids into corporate slaves. The idea is that these giant companies could certainly afford interns the minimum wage — or at least a modest stipend.

The counter side retorts, “Hey, what’s the big deal anyway?” Unpaid internships in some format have been around forever in many career fields that eventually become incredibly rewarding, and interns coming into well-established fields need to pay their dues until they gain some experience and qualify for the “real world.”

And shouldn’t we? We spoiled millennials need to quit playing the victim card and get over it, right? Well, in some cases, maybe so. Yes, we do need to step up to the plate, but isn’t that what we young professionals are trying to do by seeking sub-entry-level positions in the first place?

This “just grin and bear it” argument is largely irrelevant as it fails to recognize what the standardization of unpaid internships means in a broader sense, which is, intentionally or not, capping the number of qualified applicants at those who have the financial means to sustain a summer, a semester, or even years of working for free.

A Gaurdian article a few months back suggested that in the field of writing, “unpaid internships and a culture of privilege are ruining journalism,” as they directly prohibit low-income aspiring journalists to begin to make a name for themselves, or to even share their points of view in print for that matter. The same article also relays an anecdote in which an anonymous senior staffer from a national publication told interns that if they couldn’t bear life as an unpaid intern, they didn’t deserve to be hired — they just didn’t want it badly enough. Come to find out, that staffer had, in fact, survived his own unpaid internship struggle just fine, living in his family’s spare apartment conveniently located near his office at the time.

In short, consciously or not, employers with unpaid internships keep access to necessary career experience (and arguably, the possibility to explore and experience various professional fields that is almost always essential in forming a promising career) for people who can afford it. This can ultimately reserve high-responsibility, high-salaried jobs for demographics that have traditionally held such jobs in our country (i.e. not many racial minorities or women, to start) or for people lucky enough to have outside resources provided by centers like our own Career and Leadership Development office that allots internship funding for students that often makes unpaid internships more feasible.

With a popular moral standpoint holding that these positions exploit young professionals and a pervasive logistical argument that this entryway to the workforce shuts the door on some of the United States’ brightest young people, have we reached the end of an era? Will unpaid internships soon become a thing of the past?

It is possible that they will continue in many career fields, with notable exceptions for interns who request compensation at the individual level and have what are considered appropriate or legitimate reasons for receiving pay. However, it is also likely that with related lawsuits on the rise companies will start offering some form of compensation for their interns to avoid getting sued. Maybe companies that can afford to pay interns will see how their programs are generally catered to a specific type of applicant and will aim to open their intern positions to a greater pool of qualified candidates. My guess is that they will have to make some changes or at least be able to defend their current unpaid internship programs in response to sceptical public sentiment. However, although especially cringe-worthy for graduating seniors, they could, of course, continue on their way unfazed. We’ll keep our fingers crossed they don’t.