Internships: Opportunities or virtual slavery?

April 8, 2010


Yesterday, I spent about half an hour interviewing over the phone. If I’m lucky and the interview turns out to be a success, I will have the opportunity to spend the summer away from my family and friends, in “accommodations” provided by my employer, working 40-hour weeks, and earning exactly zero dollars. This might sound terrifying to some people. Modern-day indentured servitude, others might call it. And yet I’m kind of hoping I get the job. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been sending e-mails, checking websites, databases, and the always reliable Craigslist. Since learning exactly what a cover letter is, I’ve written more than my fair share of them, and constantly, neurotically tweaked my resume to give myself a leg up on the thousands of faceless college students I am competing with. Like many of my peers, both at Georgetown and at colleges around the country, I’ve been hunting for a summer internship. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 83 percent of graduating college students in 2008 had held an internship at some point in their college career. And, like many of my peers, there’s a good chance I won’t get paid for it. 

With the decline of the economy and internship experience becoming more and more critical for future job prospects, it’s become easier for companies to get away with offering students internships without any compensation. Case in point: a 2000 Newsweek article’s subhead read, “Flush with offers of $20 an hour, benefits and even stock options, interns these days are in the driver’s seat.” A decade later, a Newsweek article from this week is titled, “Can you afford to be a summer intern?”  

Unpaid internships have become so widespread, that, according to an April 2 New York Times article, the Department of Labor and state officials are launching investigations and fining companies, worried that employers are illegally enjoying free labor under the guise of providing young people with internships. Under federal law, if interns are to be unpaid, their work must not provide “immediate advantage” to the employer.  Of course, defining the advantage, or lack thereof, provided by an intern is difficult, and many interns are unwilling to come forward to complain, fearing that doing so could endanger their future job prospects. 

With the Great Recession wreaking havoc on family finances, though, many students can no longer afford to spend their summer working without pay. The few thousand bucks one could make working even a menial, minimum wage job could take a big bite out of next year’s student loans or textbook purchases. As someone who will be spending the fall semester studying abroad, I could definitely use the extra money to spend on living expenses (as well as souvenirs and travel).  

Why do we do this? Why aren’t we applying for traditional summer jobs at supermarkets or restaurants or amusement parks, like the characters in all those coming-of-age comedies, jobs where we’d be guaranteed to come out of the break having earned a few thousand dollars?  

The first issue is, as humbling as this may be, I don’t necessarily think we could get many of these paying non-internship jobs. Sure, being on the first honor roll last semester looks fancy on a resume, but the manager of Safeway is probably more interested in whether or not you know how to work a cash register.  

Compounding the problem is the fact that we’re ambitious—maybe overly-ambitious—people. While spending the summer lounging at the beach or earning plenty of spending money would be fun, I’d come back to the Hilltop feeling like those three months had been wasted. I could have been working with some exciting company, and even if much of my time had been spent getting people coffee without even being reimbursed for gas money, I still would have come out of it with some insight into how a real business or organization runs, and a better idea of what I want to do when I graduate.  

Ultimately, I don’t think I’d be satisfied not taking the leap to something bigger and better, even if that something bigger and better is an unpaid internship that I maybe can’t afford. By sacrificing a little bit now—going without spending money or taking out a few thousand more dollars in student loans—I get an early peek into the next stage of my life, and maybe get the experience and connections necessary to succeed in that stage after I graduate.

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