Every summer, thousands of starry-eyed college students leave their dorm rooms and backpacks behind for the thrill of cramped apartments, cheap take-out, and chintzy suits and skirts. For the investment banking and consulting crowd, life will be exhausting, but well-paid. But for those in other industries, like public service, journalism and academic research, compensation can be meager — if it even exists at all.
These kinds of experiences are common. According to a June 11 New York Times article, undergraduates fill over 1 million summer internship positions each year, half of which are unpaid. Many with unpaid positions rely on family support, financial or otherwise, or work other part-time jobs in order to support themselves.
And while unpaid internships are common, they are by no means uncontroversial, and have been the subject of media attention and debate in recent years. This past June, a controversial Fox Searchlight Pictures ruling once again put the spotlight on unpaid interns. In the decision, the judge ruled that the entertainment conglomerate had violated minimum wage laws by failing to pay two production interns for their contributions during the summer.
Why are we, as a society, willing to give unpaid internships the benefit of the doubt while fighting so hard to raise the minimum wage domestically or abolish sweatshops overseas? The difference, it seems, lies in the notion of “education.” Interns are learning valuable work and life skills, the story goes, that will allow them to land high-paying jobs later in life. But this attitude is problematic in that it implicitly cements existing social stratifications by disadvantaging students who can’t rely on wealthy families to support unpaid posts. A student who needs to work over the summer to pay off student loans, support herself or even support her family is out of the running before she can even say “interview.” As a result, privileged students inevitably find themselves in some of the most competitive internships — internships with legislators and policymakers, for example, that are crucial to entering the good graces of America’s political elite. In a system that is already rigged against the poor and minority classes, adding even more distance between Washington, D.C., and the disadvantaged is as unsurprising as it is counterintuitive.
And unpaid internships are exploitation, plain and simple. The idea that companies provide interns with experience commensurate to what they would have had to pay employees in salary is absurd. Most of the time, interns add real value to the company by doing work other employees would otherwise have had to do. And sure, the first few weeks of an unpaid internship might just be coffee runs, but any employee doomed to interact with an executive before her morning coffee can attest to the value of that particular service.
In all seriousness, though, interns — many of them bright college students — are often integral to a company’s summer life. And many do end up learning from their jobs and come back with positive reviews of their summer. But this argument is not unique; the same thing can be said of any low-wage employee. Recent immigrants who take a job at McDonald’s, for example, are learning English language and communication skills through their work. But can you imagine the public outrage that would occur if McDonald’s announced it was suddenly going to stop paying its ESL workers?
Admittedly, Yale is among the better end of colleges doing its part to make all internships accessible to everyone. Residential college grants designed for the express purpose of allowing students to do things like trek across the Appalachians studying birdcalls for a summer are good steps on the way to internship equality. The Bulldogs Across America programs, which provide free housing for accepted students, foster supportive environments while still exposing undergraduates to the cultural and social nuances of a new American city.
But these are only Band-Aid solutions to a larger problem. Society needs to acknowledge that interns are people too, and begin paying them the money they deserve — or at least enough to cover Thursday night take-out in their shoe-closet apartments.
Joanna Zheng is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.