Unpaid Internships Are Still a Problem—And To End It, Institutional Change Must Be Made

In 2010, Vogue auctioned a one-week internship for charity. The offering—albeit for a good cause—went to the highest bidder for $42,500. Needless to say, most Americans could not afford to participate in this opportunity (the median wage in the U.S. that year was $26,363, according to The Washington Post).

While it's an extreme example of the role privilege plays for getting a foot in the door, this story does illustrate a common reality of problems with unpaid internships. Rather than provide access for folks to test out a career path and industry and gain some relevant experience in the process, the privilege associated with unpaid internship programs ushers certain people forward and holds others back. And too often, the roles function as a financial barrier to upward mobility and future earning power.

Experts In This Article
  • Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, is a diversity educator and activist who holds a Bachelor of Science in Health Education in Community Based Public Health, a Master of Public Health, and a Doctorate of Health Sciences in Leadership and Organizational Behavior.

And in 2021, it's still a problem; a recent debate surrounding an unpaid internship opportunity with NFL Network highlighted the reality that such opportunities are only available to candidates who are financially privileged enough to accept them. This only reinforces the generational wealth gap, wherein marginalized communities have little to nothing to build upon for reasons supported by systemic racism. The gap can also perpetuate a lack of diversity in certain professions, since students who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) disproportionately don't have the means to take on such roles.

When businesses do not offer financial compensation for interns, those who cannot afford to work without a paycheck are forced out of opportunities, says Stanley Tate, an attorney and student-loan law expert based in St. Louis. “Unpaid internships result in killing the careers of these lower- and middle-class students early on,” he says. “They just cannot afford to do an internship that doesn't pay. The rich students either don't have loans or get financial assistance from their parents, [allowing them to take unpaid positions]. It sets up the rich to get richer and puts so many blockades for the rest. This is how unpaid internships widen the wage gap,” Tate says. There have been lawsuits and legal ramifications that have served as warnings for other businesses offering internships, but there is still a long way to go.

With access to internships being inequitable—and compensation being unequal once access is granted—many start out behind in terms of salary level, which is hard to make up for.

According to 2017 data from the Economic Policy Institute, white families’ average wealth was seven times higher than that of Black families. Furthermore, even when an internship does come with compensation, race discrepancy is reportedly rampant across intern pay scales; the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that white students are more likely to be paid than unpaid, while Black students are more likely to be unpaid, Latinx candidates are more likely to never have an internship than an unpaid or paid internship, and multi-racial Americans are more likely to be unpaid or never intern at all. With access to internships being inequitable—and compensation being unequal once access is granted—many start out behind in terms of salary level, which is hard to make up for and may be part of what leads to so few BIPOC employees being in leadership roles.

Take Anayasia Johnson, 21, who is African American and Latinx, for example. She is a first-generation college student and a senior at Howard University who dreams of working in the fashion industry, but notes the abysmal (if existent at all) wages for interns are a barrier to entry. She ultimately couldn't afford to take the unpaid internships she was offered in 2018 and 2019, instead opting for paid retail positions. “With parents who worked full-time and still struggled to pay every bill, I could not—and cannot—afford to work an entire summer for free,” she says. “I believe this may have had a negative impact on my growth professionally, as it closed off many opportunities that could have opened doors for me in such a competitive industry.”

According to Internships.com, 60.8 percent of internships in 2019 were paid; however, about 22 percent of employers said they were canceling internships entirely in 2020 as a result of pandemic conditions, with another 19 percent undecided as of May 1, 2020. This left fewer opportunities (both paid and unpaid) up for grabs.

But still, many universities, colleges, and specific majors require internships as a graduation requirement. (When this is the case, some—but not all—universities have placement programs, and the schools work with companies to establish beneficial learning experiences with fair wages.) Without aid, though, students are forced to complete work for free, without financial help from schools, companies, or family and often take on the burden of debt. And needless to say, often employers favor entry-level job candidates who have completed one or more relevant internships. And so, the cycle of continues; in order for it to stop, change needs to happen in the internship system's infrastructure.

Progress that's been made regarding the problems with unpaid internships

Since the Vogue internship auction of 2010, internship culture has made strides away from glorifying unpaid opportunities. Some interns and former interns—in publishing and other industries—have filed suits against employers, and many resulted in back-wage payouts. A number of employers, including Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, eliminated unpaid intern positions or shifted those roles into paid positions.

The Department of Labor now requires companies to provide training and ensure interns’ tasks complement, not replace, the work of paid employees. There are other rules by which employers must legally abide under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which stipulates that unpaid internships are illegal except in situations wherein the intern specifically benefits from the experience more so than the company.

In fall 2011, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman—former unpaid interns for FOX Searchlight Pictures—filed a class action lawsuit in New York City, claiming the company had misclassified them as interns rather than entry level-employees, and therefore avoided paying them for their time.

Both Glatt and Footman, who contributed to the production of Black Swan (which made a reported $330 million globally at box offices), had combined responsibilities including but not limited to making photocopies, running errands and taking out the trash, which is to say that their duties were likely more beneficial to the company than to their respective career paths.

Ultimately, five years later in 2016, 21st Century Fox settled the suit, with Fox Searchlight Pictures as well as Fox Entertainment Group paying $495 to each claimant who interned for free between 2005 and 2010, for a minimum of two weeks. Glatt and Footman were paid $7,500 and $6,000, respectively.

That said, it's important to note that lawsuits and lawyers require capital—which interns typically don’t have access to without the help of generational wealth. And, although rules have changed to protect interns on a grand scale, the laws regarding payment differ from state to state. In short, progress has been made, but a problematic infrastructure of internship culture remains.

What’s next? Below find 4 steps for finally ending the internship culture that supports working for free.

1. Colleges and universities must change graduation requirements

Many colleges and universities require that students complete internships as a graduation requirement—and this could stand to change.

“Faculty, leadership, and the deans of schools could say, ‘if we want this to be a requirement, we have to assure that they have a living wage.’" —Akilah Cadet, DHSc, diversity consultant

“Faculty, leadership, and the deans of schools could say, ‘if we want this to be a requirement, we have to assure that they have a living wage.’ If not, then we're going to have to make sure that [the requirement instead] becomes a final paper or an informational interview or a day of shadowing,” says Akilah Cadet, DHSc, diversity consultant, executive coach, and founder of Change Cadet. “That's not so taxing on someone who still has to work. It doesn't require the background of someone with a family member or trust fund to help them afford the daily basic things we need as humans to function."

2. Schools can pay students for their internship hours or affiliate with paid programs

Another option for schools is to pay students while they are engaged in internships. “I used to work at U.C. Berkeley, and that’s what we did,” says Dr. Cadet. “[A students’] department—let’s say they’re in public health—would pay for half of their income, and my [research] department would pay for half of their income. For three months, that individual intern would be gainfully employed and focus on the internship.”

Some schools, like Paul Quinn College in Dallas, are federally designated “work colleges,” which helps gain students access to highly competitive internships while offsetting their tuition and student debt.

3. Employers must de-emphasize the importance of internships on a resume

Businesses hiring entry-level candidates need to reevaluate internships in general as a requirement and the weight they hold in order to close the wage and employment gap supported by internship culture.

“You want somebody who is willing to learn. At entry level, [employers] still provide experiences and learning opportunities, so they should really remove college and internship preferences,” says Dr. Cadet, who instead suggests companies gravitate toward candidates who express a passion for that industry, a desire to learn, and showcase other experiences that encompass the position’s day-to-day functions.

4. Companies need to create a diverse environment

Beyond paying interns, brands must recruit interns and all employees from a diverse pool of applicants. It’s also imperative that the recruiters and hiring teams are diverse themselves and celebrate diversity, says Cadet. This way, the applicant feels like they belong. Then, “when the internship is over, they're like, ‘Oh I they wanted me here. I could focus. I had the money. I made these relationships.' Maybe it turns into a job.—that’s the goal.”

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