POINT: Unpaid internships have value but perpetuate inequality

During the summer before I started college, I had what I believed to be the world’s worst job. I worked for 40 hours a week in the “pizza parlor” of Raging Waters, California’s largest (and most overcrowded) water park. My eight-hour shifts involved getting yelled at by angry customers, manning a 100-plus-degree pizza oven in 100-plus-degree weather and wearing a polyester outfit covered in toucans.

However, this exhausting, unglamorous job had an advantage over many of the summer positions offered to college students: It was paid. 

For today’s college student searching for an internship, it feels as if there are 300 unpaid positions for every one paid position. Obviously, many unpaid internships have inherent value as a resume booster and experience builder, but they also are inherently unfair.

Let’s say you’re a hiring manager at a top magazine. You’re looking at two resumes — both students majored in journalism, but one student spent his summer working as a cashier, while the other had an unpaid internship writing for a well-known publication. Obviously, the student with prior experience in the field would be desirable. But what about that student who worked as a cashier to save money over the summer for his fall tuition bill? Or the girl who worked in retail, even though she wants to work in politics?

It is clear that internships are linked to opportunity, but the prevalence of unpaid positions that only a select few can afford furthers the inequality of this opportunity. For students who need to use their summers — and free time during the academic year — to make money, unpaid internships come at a significant opportunity cost. Even if they are lucky enough to get some expenses covered by their employer, every hour spent at the internship is an hour they could have spent making money they may need to support themselves.

Even if students can afford unpaid internships, they still run the risk of wasting their time in position that doesn’t provide them with a valuable experience. Perhaps the majority of unpaid internships provide excellent learning experience and connections for students, but there also are a large number that lack these benefits. We’ve all heard the typical unpaid intern horror stories — staring at a blank computer screen all day, dusting the office, making constant coffee runs — that are found in all career sectors. And it’s one thing to work an awful job if you leave with a paycheck, but it’s another if you’re getting absolutely nothing out of it, whether it is money or life experience.

Admittedly, I’ve taken on multiple unpaid internships with government organizations and nonprofits, supported both by external stipends and by working part-time paid jobs on the side, and have found them extremely beneficial. I’ve been lucky enough to have internship supervisors who understood the issues facing unpaid interns, and responded by allowing flexible schedules to work additional jobs and assigning real responsibilities.

Programs such as the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics definitely fill an important void by providing students who take an unpaid internship with funding. In addition to providing funding, Unruh serves a useful role as an “go-between,” or an institution a student can go to with questions or concerns about their internships.

However, there is still more that can be done at the university level to protect students from unpaid internships that are downright exploitative, and to ensure fair access to those that aren’t. One step would be offering more stipends that are solely need-based.

Additionally, some internships require students to receive academic credit for the position — which comes at thousands of dollars in additional costs for USC students, especially if the internship takes place over the summer, during which students do not receive financial aid. This academic unit requirement for some unpaid internships is partially due to federal requirements meant to ensure that students “learn” from unpaid positions. Though well-intentioned, these requirements have helped to create a market for universities to charge tuition during the summer session.

In the meantime, students should be careful while considering unpaid internship offers for this summer to ensure that they find a position that will value their uncompensated time. And students that do accept these positions need to recognize that it is a privilege not afforded to many students.

Erin Rode is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism and political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.