Drake: Student interns not a source of free labor

Breaking into the job market post-graduation can present a daunting task and gaining the experience necessary to even be considered can seem impossible. That’s where internships come in handy.

That said, college students’ need for experience is steadily becoming more abused through unpaid internships, and students should not be taken advantage of simply because of their eagerness to succeed.

Undergraduate students are consistently informed that they must have internships on their résumé if they stand a chance at applying for jobs, much less getting them. In a study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 75 percent of employers report they want applicants to have experience, especially from internships. Needless to say, students jump at the opportunity if they hear of a promising internship.

The difficulty is that most internships are unpaid. Students can consider themselves lucky if they have an internship that doesn’t require travel costs, buying certain clothes or even renting an apartment to be near enough to work. Students are essentially paying for the chance to have these internships.

Yes, the experience is invaluable. There seems, however, to be a vicious cycle: Employers say they want to see experience on a résumé, but it has become increasingly difficult to land a position in order to get that experience in the first place.

It is the amount of work that interns must shoulder that raises concerns. Interns notoriously work long hours on little sleep, with little to no pay. Interns sit lower on the totem pole than entry-level positions in a firm or business and are given all of the most basic work. At the surface, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with this. Work experience at a top law firm for a few weeks, even if it is just sorting their mail, is still a great addition to any résumé. I do, however, have a problem with employers using interns as unpaid replacements for entry-level positions.

The downward spiral of the economy is a big incentive for employers to see interns as a source of free labor. Increasingly, it is used as a resourceful way to save money. This is good news for business-savvy companies, bad news for all potential interns. Unlike actual employees, interns do not have any of the protection or benefits of a paid worker.

The representative example of Xuedan Wang, a 28-year-old going to court over an unpaid internship at Harper’s Bazaar, proves to be a familiar theme for many other 20-somethings. The New York Times reported that Wang had four months of unpaid, full-time work with hours more of overtime. This is more than just unfair; it’s exploitive.

Interns are not free labor. Admittedly, my perspective is colored by my position as a broke undergraduate, desperate to find work in my field of interest. Even so, I’m sure we would all appreciate the chance to work, put in hours on the clock, but not have our need for experience be abused by penny-pinching employers.