WORK vs. EDUCATION
Are internships indistinguishable from education? If they are, it's perfectly permissible that they be unpaid. Education doesn't pay salaries to students. Students aren't paid to take Psych 101. They're not paid to apply to graduate school. More than 90% of employers think that students should have between one and two internships before they graduate, according to a new study from research by Millennial Branding and Experience, Inc. Internships have become an inextricable part of the college experience and a pre-req for post-graduate employment.
But this presents a Catch-22 for lower-income students who want to work in politics, research, journalism, non-profits, or other industries that traffic in unpaid internships. These students need work that pays money, but they also need an internship to work in the field. As a result, poorer students are at permanent disadvantage in the summer internship market ... unless, as many of you suggested, we force schools to pay interns with credits or stipends.
But this outcome is unsatisfactory. Cash-strapped schools already face declining public funding. Now they're supposed to pay employers for work done by students? Surely, some colleges could do more to recognize the value of internships and improve their career services offices. But they shouldn't be in the job of paying other companies' salaries.
It's all well that unpaid internships are—as a few commenters pointed out— "better for students than actual college." But that's not a good reason to deny millions of workers salaries just because they're young. Plenty of entry-level positions better prepare people for work than college. If it is relevant that an unpaid internship is "useful", does it follow that only useless internships should have salaries? Of course not. Utility and salary have nothing to do with one another.
A JOB BY ANY OTHER NAME
An overwhelming number of unpaid internships are jobs by another name. We accept that they are not salaried because they are temporary, because the work is done by students, and, not insignificantly, for the simple reason that we choose to call them internships—a position we've come to consider unpaid.
If you have worked in the Washington, D.C., research or non-profit sector, you know that often the roles of an intern and, say, a research assistant overlap. The reason that companies pay one and not the other is that they know they can get away with it. A 19-year old student has little bargaining power, especially if she wants to work in an industry where unpaid internships are the norm. ("If you don't pay me, I'll go to that other magazine that has better muffins," is not a strong negotiating stance.)
For hundreds of thousands of students a year, the status quo is fine. It is mutually beneficial to an affluent student and a cash-strapped firm for work to be done for free, in exchange for the possibility of a job or recommendation in the future.