Last summer, a clip of U.S. Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez went viral on Twitter. Standing alongside fellow Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, she shouts into the camera, “Experience doesn’t pay the bills!”
Ocasio-Cortez is highlighting the challenge I and so many other working-class young adults are plagued with following college graduation: not all students can afford to work an unpaid internship.
As a college student, acquiring an internship before landing a job feels like a requirement. Internship fairs, emails listing countless unpaid positions from the career development center, and professors boasting about former students who now work at major news publications are constantly thrown in my face.
I’ve seen job descriptions targeted towards undergraduates and postgraduates offering free Metrocards as a substitute for compensation. It’s a nice perk, but I can’t pay my rent with a Metrocard. I’ve even seen peers pay a fee just for an application for an internship. Not only is this insulting, but it also implies that as interns, payment isn’t something we should expect or deserve.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 43 percent of for-profit companies don’t pay their interns. This is exploitive and it should be illegal. It doesn’t matter that working for free isn’t economically feasible; they’re usually the only way for students to gain experience before graduating into the workforce. According to a 2017 NACE survey, 60 percent of college students work at an internship before graduation. Companies know those eager postgraduates looking to break into their field will take on these unpaid positions.
As a sophomore in college, I currently know of three students who have secured full-time internships for the summer—all of them unpaid. It is up to their families to pay for four months of housing. They might be “gaining experience”, but they are without a doubt losing thousands of dollars. This automatically eliminates anyone whose parents aren’t paying for their living expenses from the pool of candidates.
A lot of my peers might be able to afford this, however, I will never be able to. Getting an unpaid internship would mean I would have to quit my current full-time job, which I need in order to afford to stay in college. This is impossible for me financially, but I feel like if I don’t make this sacrifice, I will struggle to land a job after graduation due to a lack of relevant experience.
I cannot imagine waking up early every morning and getting ready to go to work for a job that gives me zero monetary compensation. Furthermore, it would feel degrading to walk into an interview where I attempt to impress someone, knowing I won’t receive a single paycheck.
Just because someone will work without pay does not mean they should, regardless of their financial situation. It doesn’t matter if someone can afford to because it sets up the standard for other students and postgraduates to do the same.
Another NACE study found that young adults who completed paid internships received 26 percent more job offers than those who worked for free. This makes sense to me because if a company won’t even provide someone with the minimum wage, then they are likely not serious about hiring that applicant after their internship ends.
I have little faith this will change, even with the complaints of bankrupt college students. The simple fact is companies put more effort into reaping money for themselves than they do in giving their interns the opportunity to do well.
In an InternMatch survey from 2013, only 30 percent of employers reported they felt their internship program was diverse enough. This is not just economic disparity, but also a class issue and an inequality issue. This way of thinking perpetuates the never-ending cycle of the poor remaining poor while the rich stay rich. It should be simple—if a company is profiting off of the work or ideas of one of their employees, they deserve pay. Internship programs struggle to attract employees from diverse backgrounds, and it isn’t because these potential employees do not want to work there.
By not paying an intern, a company admits they don’t value their work enough to provide financial compensation. If a company can’t afford to pay their workers, then they can’t afford to hire them. As an employee, I would put more effort into my job if the environment made me feel like my work actually matters.
Right now, working in an unpaid position can feel like the only option. For a lot of students, it’s safer than waiting for the possibility of a company to hire someone with little experience for an entry-level job. I respect myself too much to ever welcome the idea of an unpaid internship, and receiving decent wages for my work is non-negotiable. If an employer thinks there is nothing wrong with free labor, then that is not a company I want to work for.