The Second-Biggest Myth About Unpaid Internships: They're Just for the Rich

If anything, poor and middle class students are extra likely to get stuck in unpaid gigs.

One popular argument for unpaid internships is that they help students get jobs. It turns out that's probably wrongOne popular argument against unpaid internships is that only rich kids can take them. It turns out that's probably wrong, too. 

If anything, poor and middle class students are extra likely to get stuck in unpaid internships. Rich kids, by and large, seem to prefer collecting a paycheck.

Such were the findings of a fascinating 2010 study conducted for Intern Bridge, a consulting firm that specializes in college recruiting, and one of the few major sources of data on the internship market. After analyzing survey responses from thousands of college students, the paper concluded: "Our findings do not support the common contention that students from the wealthiest families have greater access to unpaid internships, even among most for profit companies. Low income students have a much higher level of participation in unpaid internships than students from high income families." 

As shown in the graph below, adapted from Intern Bridge's data, unpaid interns at for-profit companies are most likely to come from families making less than $80,000. Paid interns are about equally likely to come from families making above or below $80,000.

Intern_Bridge_For_Profit_Intern_Wealth.JPG

At nonprofits, unpaid interns also skewed poor and middle class. (For that matter, so did paid interns).

Intern_Bridge_Nonprofit_Intern_Wealth.JPG

The only sector where the richest students were more likely to be found in unpaid positions? Government. Apparently everything we've heard about privileged Capitol Hill interns might be true after all. 

Intern_Bridge_Government_Intern_Wealth.JPG

There were a few important exceptions to these trends: namely, Hollywood, Wall Street and, probably, a good chunk of New York Media. Wealthy unpaid interns, the study reported, tended to cluster in finance, the arts and entertainment. Less wealthy ones tended to work in transportation, health, and manufacturing. So glamour industries may indeed be shutting out the poor. But it's an open question whether that's because the opportunities often require working unpaid full time, or if it's because wealthier students are just more likely to compete for them. 

That brings us to an important nuance that might be hidden beneath these numbers. According to Intern Bridge, the majority of part-time internships are unpaid. It's entirely possible that many lower-income students are taking for those positions and working a second job to pay the bills, while their richer classmates opt for full-time unpaid opportunities in industries like finance. 

But broadly speaking, unpaid internships don't seem to hurt the poor because they're out of reach. Instead, they're too in reach. Middle class and poor students are choosing to work for free, even if they can't really afford it. And it's not at all clear that sacrifice is paying off. 

***

*Technical notes: If you read my graphs carefully, you might notice that the distribution of paid  interns in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors don't add up to 100. Rather, they add up to 104 percent and 96 percent, respectively. This is not a transcription error. Also: Intern Bridge's survey participants are self selected, which may skew this sample somewhat. Unfortunately, there's no vast government repository of information on interns. So we have to work with what we have. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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