Internships have become a rite of passage into the workforce. Employers hiring fresh college graduates prefer students with working experience. However, the playing field isn’t fair when it comes to opportunity. Unpaid internships are promoting classism in the job market.
Classism is when people of a lower social class are treated unfairly compared to those from wealthier backgrounds. In today’s job market, entry-level positions aren’t typically your first job. Many of them require working experience, and this is often fulfilled through internships. Whether it’s a summer internship or part-time gig throughout the school year, recruiters want potential employees to know what they’re doing. Internships have become a screening method to weed out who is and isn’t qualified.
This is problematic for many reasons. Competition is fierce between internships because work experience is an expectation for graduates. However, companies can only afford to hire so many people. In reaction to this, many companies have started offering unpaid internships.
The idea is that people can get the working experiences they need without companies going bankrupt. In theory, it provides a solution to competition; in reality, it means that lower-class students cannot afford to enter the job market.
Students who come from poorer backgrounds have to work outside of class to make ends meet, often at minimum wage jobs. Tuition, rent, groceries and gas are expensive. I have friends who work 40-hour work weeks in addition to their studies, and they are still struggling to pay for college. People in this situation hardly have time for the jobs they’re currently working, let alone an unpaid internship.
Low-income students simply cannot afford to work an unpaid internship. This means that they can only apply for paid internships, which are usually more competitive.
In the meantime, students from wealthier backgrounds can work for free without having to take another job or worry about paying for college. That is, if those students’ parents are paying for their college. They can gather experience that sets them up for better jobs after graduation because they won’t spend time focusing on how they’re going to pay rent for the next month.
This isn’t the student’s fault; a person can’t help what socioeconomic class they’re born into. However, graduates who can afford to work unpaid internships will be more likely to get hired right out of college. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition, employers highly value job candidates with unpaid internship experiences and the duration and structure of an internship. Their prior experience may also lend them a higher salary in comparison to those with less on their resume.
This perpetuates the cycle of income inequality. Students who start with less continue to get less, while students from families of higher income will continue to benefit from their privilege.
Income inequality is a complex issue that extends into hundreds of other social issues. Race, location, gender and countless other factors affect people’s salary, but the only thing students can control, more or less depending on availability, is which type of internships they apply for.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 states that any employees from for-profit companies need to be paid for their work. However, they don’t count interns as employees. Companies should be held accountable for the negative impact their unpaid internships are having on society. It’s classist to have internships that only a sector of the population can afford to work. Nobody should have to work for free.