Unpaid internships foster job market inequality

With the semester winding down, students are scrambling to finalize their summer plans. For many, that involves applying to countless internships. Across all professional disciplines, internship programs vary in compensation – some pay generously, others do not pay at all. Paradoxically, some of these unpaid internship programs exist at the biggest firms. Even the White House, which hosts 300 interns per year, does not pay its interns.

The conventional wisdom is that the professional experience gained from an internship is compensation enough. Also, interns are theoretically doing work for their own education, not for the benefit of their firm. In practice, however, that is not always the case - but we will address that later. Unpaid internships create a professional playing field that unfairly favors the upper and upper-middle class.

There is no doubt that having professional experience in a certain field will help students at finding employment upon graduation. Unpaid internships leave students that are unable to forgo a summer’s worth of pay to compete against those that are. In a job market where any meaningful employment is hard to come by, this dynamic doubles down the odds against the lower and middle class.

Unpaid internships are a luxury, padding the resumes of those who already enjoy every possible advantage in the job market. Anyone who has been on the hunt for summer employment knows, however, that having every possible advantage is not always enough in the current job market. The result is a slew of young people begrudgingly accepting positions for which they will not be paid simply because it is in their own best interest.

In theory, their internships would have them training for future careers by shadowing supervisors and observing the firms’ day-to-day operations. But as has been in the case in a number of high-profile lawsuits, higher-ups may end up delegating their less important work to interns.

Furthermore, litigation may actually be counterproductive. In response to a lawsuit, Condè Nast simply ended its internship program altogether, highlighting the reality that younger people truly need these positions more than the firms that offer them need us. Intuitively, the absence of any unpaid internships would level the playing field. The likelihood of that happening is extremely low. As unpopular as they may be, unpaid internships will exist as long as there are young people desperately searching for something – anything – to do.

Ideally, internships would be a wonderful resource for students seeking to prepare for future careers or even figure out what exactly they want to do. The way they are currently structured coupled with the massive amount of competition for them, however, creates an exclusionary job market.