The Privilege Behind Unpaid Internships: Who Benefits and Who Gets Left Behind

Young college grads must do everything possible to land a great job. Having an internship on your resume is a sure-fire way to stand out in a crowded field of talented individuals. 

Unfortunately, many of the most desirable internships at prestigious companies come with a giant catch: They’re unpaid. 

Even those who offer payment typically only provide a small stipend, which may or may not be near minimum wage and probably isn’t close to a living wage. 

Unpaid Internships Give Priority To the Privileged

The lack of pay for internships means one thing: many qualified people simply can’t afford to take them. 

Recent college grads without wealthy parents must work for real money upon graduation. They can’t afford to give their all to a company for 40 hours a week without earning a paycheck; they need the money to live. 

Rich kids whose parents pay rent and provide trust funds have no problem spending the equivalent of a semester networking with industry insiders for little to no pay. 

These wealthy kids get the internships and make the most of them. The internship experience propels them to a career where they can earn 60K per year right out of the gate.

Company Gatekeeping

Poor kids aren’t applying for internships; the most insidious part is that the companies know it. 

They know the game. They know who’s applying and will only hire people who completed internships for their most prestigious positions. 

Keeping the internship unpaid is the perfect way to keep the “undesirables” out. Companies have an ideal, legitimate-looking legal reason for hiring Blane, who happens to be the son of the CEO’s best friend, over Xavier, who couldn’t even be bothered to apply for an internship. 

And what recourse does Xavier have? He didn’t do the internship. He couldn’t; he had to find a way to pay his bills after college. 

How To Change Unpaid Internships

The best way to even the playing field is to end the practice of unpaid internships altogether. If you want someone to do a job, you should pay them full stop. Anyone who works any job, even in some type of on-the-job training program, deserves a salary. 

Apprentices in trades get salaries. Student teachers get salaries. Soldiers in basic training get salaries. So why don’t interns?

Another option is to include a semester-long internship as a graduation requirement and allow students to take out loans to cover their living expenses during this period. The internship should replace a semester rather than add to one to reduce the already massive student loan burden. 

The loan option isn’t ideal, as it still benefits rich kids over poor kids. Rich kids don’t have to take out loans, while poor students get saddled with even more debt. 

End the Practice Altogether

The best practice is to end the internships altogether. Why do we insist on giving companies free labor? If they want someone to learn the business and move up the ranks, they should pay them for it. 

Everyone should be paid for work, even if they are inexperienced.