OPINION: Why unpaid internships are unfair

It’s almost impossible to escape. In the search for an internship, I often stumble upon applications with a long list of responsibilities only to find the position to say “unpaid” at the very bottom of the page as if they’re trying to hide it. How are we still allowing this to happen?

As put by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “experience doesn’t pay the bills.” Highlighting the fact that not all students can afford to work for free. Further creating a broader discussion on the basis of ethics, fairness and the downfall of unpaid internships.

Amanda Powers Snowden, the director of communications and operations at the DePaul Career Center said in an email, reports from DePaul’s Handshake in 2020-21, 73 percent of internship postings were paid, while 27 percent were unpaid.

“Nationally, research reports that 43 percent of internships by for-profit companies are unpaid,” Snowden continued.

Although the number of unpaid internships is decreasing, for-profit companies continue to promote them. Free labor occurs frequently and unpaid internships are one facet of this issue.

As a student, you constantly hear about the importance of having experience beyond academics. Internships are all about gaining hands-on experience to prepare you for the future.

Mya Whitton, a DePaul neuroscience major, took on STEM-related internships that were unpaid.

“Though the work was plentiful, I enjoyed taking on tasks that made me feel like a big part of the organizations I worked for,” Whitton said in an email. “While I think some of the extraneous tasks I did should’ve been paid, I do not regret taking on these internships because it has provided me something to stand on in healthcare interviews and interviewers tend to point [to] my last internship.”

With any internship, there are benefits to familiarizing yourself with your desired field. From practicing the skills needed to learning from professionals to networking, all of which can help push you in the right direction. However, as a person who is just starting down their career path, there is this desire to feel like you and your work are respected and appreciated.

For companies that hold high expectations for unpaid interns, it can cause more harm than good. Going through the unpaid internship process can lead to low self-esteem and confidence issues due to feelings of your work not being appreciated enough to be financially rewarded.

From my experience, although I developed a foundation of career skills and knowledge, I felt like my hard work and talent as a student wasn’t appreciated enough to be rewarded financially. I was working a part-time job, taking on a full-time class load, staying involved on campus and putting down 20 hours a week as an unpaid intern.

The further I got into it the more I started to realize how unethical and unfair unpaid internships really are. The work I completed and the time I spent was taken advantage of.

“My problem with unpaid internships is the lack of recognition for the unpaid work you put in as a student, and if you have another job the internship work ultimately builds on,” Whitton said. “I think [employers] should care for the person’s financial stability and well-being as much as they care for the work they produce.”

Employers are able to cover up and take advantage of their interns by guaranteeing “real-world” experience without providing any compensation for their work. To remain ethical, the employer should align the workload expectations to whether the internship position is paid or unpaid.

As a for-profit company, if there’s the space, time and money for an intern, you should be compensating them in some way or another.

Although you may argue that unpaid interns are compensated through experience and references, there is no financial security or support.

“There are many multi-million-dollar companies that can pay their workers; there is no excuse,” Whitton said. “Considering the ongoing pandemic, to not pay your interns is quite bizarre and hurtful.”

Michael Elias, director of the College of Communication internship program at DePaul, thinks unpaid internships aren’t going anywhere.

“I don’t see unpaid internships going away in the immediate future, but I do think the balance is shifting towards more internships being paid than not,” he said in an email.

Moving forward, companies must consider avoiding unpaid internships the best they can to show that they are both fair and ethical. In any situation, interns must be treated fairly and deserve to be paid for what they are worth.