As the end of the semester approaches and students are beginning to seek summer employment, many Trojans are likely to encounter offers for unpaid internship experiences. While some argue that unpaid internships are little better than slave labor, in truth, they fill a niche role in the professional world and in education. This is not to say that the institution of unpaid internships is perfect, or that nothing about them should be changed. However, it must be acknowledged that unpaid internships do serve a purpose.
First of all, students who secure paid internships are about twice as likely as those with unpaid internships to receive job offers upon graduation, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. This likely outcome only compounds the problem for those students whose work goes uncompensated. Additionally, unpaid internships often come under fire because people with low incomes usually lack access to the opportunities that they can provide. Even so, the benefits of an unpaid internship should be discussed frankly.
Although I was not financially compensated for my work, I was happy to work as an unpaid intern at the District Attorney’s office and at a local civil rights law firm because I knew that the work I was doing was important and because the experience was truly benefiting me. I can say with full faith that without the unpaid internship experiences that I had during my time as a USC student, I likely would not have been accepted to the University of Chicago Law School.
Even with the stress of going unpaid for over-20-hour workweeks, my internships opened doors for me that would otherwise remain shut. In fact, I made many friends and connections because of my internships that went on to help me a great deal, probably more than the money would have. Additionally, professional experience is of extremely high importance in the application process for graduate schools and for securing future employment, but the only reliable way to get that experience while in college is to work as an intern. However, many students simply cannot afford to work without pay.
In recognition of that, USC has stepped in and provided support to Trojans willing to spend their time and effort to make the world a better place. Here at USC, we are lucky to have organizations like the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, the Global Fellows Internship Program and the Leonard Schaeffers Fellows Program that are capable of funding unpaid summer internships that provide students with an educational and professional experience. Unruh’s funding, for example, is necessary for those interested in public service, political communications and law because unpaid internships are often the chief way to gain professional experience and necessary networking skills in those fields. The government is not required to pay its interns, and public interest groups typically do not have the funding to provide willing students with full pay. Therefore, both will usually only hire students on the condition that they work for college credit or as volunteers. These conditions exempt the employer from needing to pay students for their labor.
The purpose of an internship is to push a student farther down their professional path, not to stunt their economic or professional growth. Perhaps there needs to be a shift away from expecting the employer to pay for a student’s labor and toward asking the University for financial assistance for those who cannot afford to work without pay. An employer is simply not required to provide internship opportunities, after all.
But if the University leverages its community connections and if the Trojan Family operates like a true family that looks out for its own, there may be hope for more equitable internship programs. For example, Trojan employers could open their doors to more unpaid interns, but the University could provide funding for those students who cannot afford to work for free. In this way, the purpose and accessibility of internships can preserved without compromising their benefits to students who are looking to broaden their professional horizons. Unpaid internships may be somewhat unfair, but they need not be when the University can feasibly provide some relief.
Trevor Kehrer is a senior majoring in political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.