How often have you browsed for internship opportunities and found one that excites you, only to be torn when seeing the words “unpaid” appear in the description? It’s happened to me more times than I would like, and I am shocked that in 2022, companies are still not paying interns for their work.
I recognize that I am not saying anything new – the discourse of unpaid internships has spanned across social media feeds for years. While college can be a fantastic time for many different aspects, there is also a layer of competitive behaviors that need to be acknowledged as well.
I want to use this blog post as a way to educate individuals about unpaid internships and hopefully encourage businesses to take the step to pay their employees.
The Problem with Unpaid Internships
On top of maintaining a GPA, there is also the full-time job of sprucing up your resume and making sure that you stand out from the crowd to ensure a job after graduation. This process can look different for non-traditional students and first-generation college students.
Unpaid internships market themselves as “opening doors” and “networking opportunities” for the industry that you want to enter after graduation. Julia Eubanks in the Occidental News wrote a piece titled ‘Unpaid internships are classist - pay interns what they deserve,’ she explained that companies that don’t pay their interns use recommendation letters and connections as a “form” of payment.
There is also the factor that some unpaid internships are used to gain class credit. For many students, this is what’s required for their major’s curriculum. I’ve included some information for TCU students if they find themselves with an unpaid internship at the end of this post.
Unpaid internships are not illegal, but are they ethical?
The Harvard Business Report, wrote that about 43% of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid. Unpaid internships are predominately for young people who come from backgrounds where they can afford to do unpaid work. Individuals who come from marginalized communities oftentimes cannot afford to do free work which continues the cycle of inequality and actively obstructs their path to equal opportunities.
In the same article, The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducted a survey in the spring of 2019 of 4,000 college seniors and their internship experiences, both paid, unpaid, and no internship experience.
First-generation college students made up 22% of the respondents, but only represented 19% of paid interns and more than one quarter had never interned before. Approximately 74% of the surveyors were women but only made up 68% of the paid interns and 81% of the unpaid interns.
A big takeaway from the survey was that students who never held an internship received the same number of job offers as students who had unpaid internships, meaning having an unpaid internship was the same as not having one at all in the sense of gaining job offers.
How Do Unpaid Internships Get By?
The Department of Labor (DOL) has a list of factors that is used to determine whether an internship is going to be paid or unpaid or if the intern will be paid below minimum wage. Pulling from the DOL website, The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires “for-profit” businesses to pay their employees. However, interns and students may not be considered employees under FLSA.
The University of Cincinnati Law Review looked further into this document. The FLSA’s broad definition of an employee is “any individual employed by an employer.” Do unpaid interns fit under the term employee then? The answer has not yet been settled. It has been said that instead of employees, unpaid interns are “trainees,” and thus are not covered by the FLSA minimum wage requirements.
The “primary beneficiary test” also states that the test “necessarily depends on the unique circumstances of each case,” which can confuse readers more on whether a job will be qualified to be paid.
If you are in a situation where you can take on an unpaid internship and gain amazing experience, you should do it. But I want to encourage businesses to take the step and pay all interns for working for them. You should be able to make a living and prepare for the next chapter of your life while working as an intern.
Internships are amazing, and I have been blessed to work for some amazing people while I’ve been in school. Internships can teach you life skills, give you hands-on experience, and give you the confidence to take on competitive job roles.
For any of my readers in the TCU community, TCU offers students the chance to get a stipend for any unpaid internship they come by if hired and the student accepts the position. The Intern Scholarship Program & Readiness Fund is available every year with deadlines and applications to complete if you are interested. Visit the Center for Career & Professional Development for more information.
If you are currently looking for an internship opportunity, each college has their own career advisor who can help with the search and review LinkedIn profiles, resumes, and cover letters!
Mercedez Saldana is a senior at Texas Christian University studying Strategic Communication and minoring in Women & Gender Studies. She is the Director of Public Relations for the Purple Team at Roxo and is passionate about all things DEI and PR. In her free time she enjoys reading, her favorite book is The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.