Summers offer students the opportunity to apply to exciting internships across the country. Internships provide valuable networking opportunities and allow students to explore different fields of interest. But recent media coverage on unpaid internships raises important questions about the equity and ethics of uncompensated work.
Conde Nast, a magazine publisher that produces popular magazines like The New Yorker, GQ and Allure, decided to eliminate its internship program after several former interns accused the company of violating labor laws by paying interns below minimum wage. The publishing company is not alone in fighting internship lawsuits. Other companies, including Fox Searchlight Pictures, have been sued for their unpaid internship programs.
The question of financial compensation for internships is particularly important in a world where landing the 'right' internship can make or break a career, as many students think. They seek internships for two main reasons. First, to impress future employers. The culture of credentialism and résumé padding has created a perceived pressure to find internships. Hearing about other people’s impressive summer plans—Duke Engage, working with nonprofit organizations, interning at Goldman Sachs—further heightens this pressure. Second, internships can provide valuable work experience and allow students to explore fields that pique their interests.
Given the perceived pressure to take internships, unpaid internship programs raise concerns about equity and exploitation. Internships often require interns to work long hours, making it difficult to take an additional paid job on the side. Students considering these internships also have to take into account additional out of pocket expenses, such as transportation, rent and food. Unpaid internships are often a net financial loss, making them almost impossible for many low-income students. In the short term, these restrictions cause experiential discrepancies between college peers. In the long term, they threaten to perpetuate ever-increasing socioeconomic stratification, as wealthy students able to afford unpaid internships benefit from networking opportunities.
The long hours and demanding nature of internship work also force us to question whether interns are receiving equal pay for equal work. Refusing to compensate interns who labor from early in the morning to late at night the same way paid employees are is a form of exploitation that should be guarded against.
We have to ask ourselves, however, whether it is better to allow some students to benefit from unpaid internships or to equalize the playing field by eliminating internships altogether. We believe that the merits of unpaid internships depend on the motives students have for seeking them. If the purpose is purely pragmatic—if it is simply an additional layer to add to a padded résumé—then both the inequalities in access and the exploitative nature of internships outweigh potential benefits. If, however, the internship is a means to explore a field of interest, then the knowledge gained through the experience may justify the existence of unpaid internships.
Regardless of whether an internship is paid or unpaid, its expectations should be clear. In part, the onus is on students to understand the work hours and nature of work before accepting a position. Employers and policymakers, however, should also formalize expectations more clearly.
As students begin to apply to summer internships, Duke should encourage them to look beyond the realm of consulting and finance, and instead explore a more diverse array of industries and opportunities.