The Young Politica: The Growing Debate On Unpaid Internships

Internships are awesome. They look great on a résumé and they help you hone your craft with real-world experience. As a journalism student, I’ve heard the same advice many times: “Do as many internships as you can.” So I have done internships, both paid and unpaid, for the sake of gaining some experience while I’m still in school.intern

Within my school and other universities across the nation, it seems like full-time, unpaid internships are a common practice. For many, these unpaid internships are taken at the cost of relocating away from school (e.g. taking a summer internship in NYC) and/or paying for extra school credit. See, that’s a loophole, folks. As long as it is labeled as ‘educational’, an employer does not have to pay its intern. In reality, paying interns is not about thriving, really; it’s about surviving. Many times, a student is not even reimbursed for housing, food, or transportation.

But there’s a group going against the current, telling students to resist unpaid work. #PayGenY, an initiative sponsored by She Negotiates Consulting and Training, argues that most unpaid internships are illegal.

“We have a very simple lesson: influence for-profit employers, university and professional schools to pay interns,” Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates, said.

The group is starting locally by asking universities in California to stop posting internship announcements for for-profit businesses and even some non-profits, if they don’t provide a living wage to students.

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Today’s unpaid interns are working jobs that would have paid others at entry level. Sometimes their work, Pynchon noted, is “mostly clerical.” By replacing these often routine but necessary jobs with unpaid interns, companies are eliminating an entire workforce. Not to mention, using interns for clerical work in this way often violates the Fair Labor Standards Act.

As per usual, women and low-income students get the short end of the stick: “Women are trying to pay off their debts 20-30% longer and they’re getting paid less than their male counterparts,” Pynchon added.

And those students whose parents earn less than the rest of their peers? Many of them cannot afford to pay for extra school credits, let alone work for free. Thus, there is a cycle perpetuated by these corporations, which limits students who come from difficult financial circumstances. Some companies offering unpaid internships acknowledge the gap between low-income and high-income interns (like opportunities for interns in the New Corporation Diversity Program, which I was a part of), which is a step in #PayGenY’s direction.

However, there’s still something off about the bigger picture and many former interns are catching on. Recent lawsuits against Hearst, Harper’s Bazaar, and Fox Searchlight suggest that perhaps for-profit employers may be exploiting the rights of these students, who often work what could be considered a full-time job for free—while still attending to school.

The struggles of unpaid interns have even hit the mainstream. Take, for example, the discussion sparked by the HBO show Girls. At the start of season one, my fictitious kindred spirit, Hannah, attempts to negotiate a paid job from her unpaid internship at a publisher, where she has worked for two years. She is promptly fired.

“It’s a question of consciousness-raising…[for these] widespread scoff laws,” Pynchon said.

It was not until Victoria Pynchon paid a visit to Chelsea Akin’s class that Akin first heard someone say that students should not take unpaid internships.

Akin, who works with #PayGenY, chimed in over the phone: “I thought unpaid internships were the norm.”

The movement is not just supported by Generation Y. Pynchon is a veteran lawyer who has spearheaded #PayGenY’s plan. “My education cost me next to nothing. [Yet even then] I couldn’t take free work…no one has ever told [Generation Y] not to work for free,” Pynchon concluded. “We are not being responsible to the upcoming generation.”




  1. Tamara Fagin on February 1, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I read this blog right after it was posted, and well, it didn’t sit well with me. I have worked as an intern – for free and paid and in both cases – it has been well worth it for me.

    Also, we just had a “free” intern at our small non-profit for J-term, and he was beyond awesome. Because he was an intern, I spent time/effort on him that I would not otherwise have done. To figure out what he wanted to get out of this internship, life, etc. It was rewarding for me, and I think for him – despite it being an unpaid internship.

    Would we have hired a junior in college with no experience in our field for 3 weeks? Would we have even spent the resources to list a job, interview, train, etc. such a person for minimum wage? No. Did he get a lot out of his 3 weeks with us? heck ya.

    Would I consider paying him for a summer job – yes. Would I recommend him for another job – yes. This is the value of free internships. He could have stayed on campus for J-term and took a regular class for credit. But, he opted to work with us in the trenches and and get credit for it. I think that asking companies to pay for this kind of thing will shut these type of programs down – and that would be a huge shame.

    Rather than make companies pay an hourly rate or something to folks for internships, I would encourage colleges to set up an internship fund that companies could donate $$$ to to help students who can’t afford to do an internship for free (help with travel costs, etc.) – sort of like more financial aid. I would have happily taken advantage of such a fund when I was in college (on a full-financial needs based – full tuition scholarship). Instead, I spent my summers serving burgers and salads to country club patrons wondering what cool things my friends with internships in D.C., NYC, etc. were doing.

    Lastly, what prompted me to write so late after your posting was the below article on the value of volunteering. for jobseekers/new grads. Would love to know what you think about it. 😉

  2. Maegan Vazquez on February 6, 2013 at 12:12 am

    The problem I’ve seen with internships is just in the types of experiences they’re getting. I don’t think it’s always necessary for a student to be paid, especially if it’s educational training. For my first semester working with Gloria I wasn’t get paid, but she definitely served as a mentor for my writing. However, what some of these students are doing during their internships does not help them in their career fields. (Here’s something I wrote about an intern at NYU: If a secretary gets paid to file folders, why shouldn’t a student get paid too?
    In reference to the article you linked to, volunteering is great. It definitely offers the benefits listed and can help students get jobs. However, many students don’t have time to volunteer. Even if they’re passionate about their field, they often prioritize menial, paid work over what may be an invaluable experience.
    At my school, there is are internship funds set up for college students to receive about $1,000 per semester. However, there are complications and requirements that disqualify many internships. Often, the internships must be for-credit and/or non-profits. Students who want experience, but don’t have the cash to take the class need not apply.

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