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The ugly truth about unpaid internships

For all we like to think of the United States as the light of democracy in the world, we do not provide a very good example. Pew research finds that in voter participation we are fourth to last among OECD countries. The dangers that this puts our democracy in are apparent and obvious. In President Barack Obama’s words, “If 99 percent of us voted, it wouldn’t matter how much the 1 percent spends on our elections.” This topic is well within the public consciousness, but what worries me more often is an issue that does not get nearly as much attention. 

Harold Melcher

Another threat to the health and legitimacy of our government “by, of, and for the people” is unpaid civic and government internships. For many young aspiring public servants the decision to take — or even apply for — internships (that we have been told we must have in order to ever have a chance of getting a job) comes down to whether we can afford to volunteer our time and still make enough money elsewhere to pay for our student loans and living costs. For many people my age, the decision is already made and the results are not good. 

Not an option for many

I was fortunate to not have had to make that decision because my family was able to support me through school (and after). The only barrier to me working in an unpaid government internship was whether I was good enough to be offered one, and if there was enough time to get there between classes. However, for economically disadvantaged students, an unpaid internship is not an option.

The problem with this situation is similar to what happens if one group of people consistently vote at higher rates than others: The other group’s voice will not be heard as it should ideally be. Our government should look as colorful as our electorate. What it comes down to is that regardless of your race, gender, etc., if you occupy a low rung on the socio-economic ladder, you probably can’t realistically afford to work unpaid for at least 15 hours a week.

We can help to ensure the opposite by paying anyone good enough to get an internship a reasonable wage for the work. If we do this, fewer people will have to decide between taking an internship in a government office or a service position working at a restaurant to pay the bills. 

Private companies understand that to attract a diverse and talented workforce, they have to offer competitive pay, even for their interns. They see the value that diverse perspectives and backgrounds bring to their companies and they pay for it. There is no reason that the same cannot exist for government internships for the exact same motives, in addition to the fact that we have a moral obligation to keep our civic institutions healthy. By creating barriers to intern-level government work, we are doing the opposite.

Still another injustice: paying for an internship

Another injustice within the current system comes when you include the credits students may earn from their school by using their internship as experiential learning. In essence this means that students must pay for the internship if they want to earn academic credit for it. This seems doubly unjust. 

For the health of our democracy, and to show aspiring young public servants that the work they do matters and should supported, we need to change this status quo. I urge and invite elected leaders at the state level to craft legislation that begins to rectify this problem. If you are good enough to get an internship, you should be paid for it, like any other job.

Harold Melcher is a recent University of Minnesota graduate. After working briefly in Washington, D.C., he returned home to work in Minnesota politics and government.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/29/2016 - 10:05 am.

    Let’s call it what it really is: FREE LABOR.

    I had no idea that this nonsense had come to the point of –

    “…internships (that we have been told we must have in order to ever have a chance of getting a job)…”

    Really?? Is that what our young are being told??

    It’s not bad enough that we have constructed a system where students bury themselves in debt and we write law and policies to protect the investors in that debt, ignoring the student?? NOW we are also demanding the student DONATE THEIR LABOR, too?? Even PAY for the privilege??

    Is this really true?? It is so outrageous, I am having doubts that anyone could go along with such a scam. Its further extension in the notion that without willingly submitting to this slavery, youth have no chance in the job market – is further beyond outrage.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/29/2016 - 10:22 am.

    It isn’t a new problem

    I did my graduate work at an Ivy League university in the 1970s and 1980s, and with the academic job market looking bleak in my field, I checked out the university’s job placement office.

    It was there that I saw major newspapers, magazines and broadcast meda; Wall Street brokerage firms, and political think tanks offering *unpaid* summer and postgraduate internships.

    Think about this for a moment. The only students who could afford to take advantage of those opportunities would be those who didn’t need to take paying jobs in the summer to meet the “self-help requirement” of their financial aid package AND could afford the cost of living in New York or Washington, D.C.

    I also had a great deal of trouble with the notion that major media outlets, Wall Street brokerage firms, and political think tanks couldn’t afford to pay even minimum wage. Their desire to take on only the children of the 1% was utterly transparent.

    The bylines of some of these former interns–whose names were familiar to anyone who paid attention on campus– began appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, National Geographic, and the list of PBS production personnel about two years after their graduation.

    It was the beginning of my awareness that America is not quite the equal opportunity society it claims to be.

  3. Submitted by David Therkelsen on 07/29/2016 - 10:29 am.

    College credits should be paid for

    I believe internships should carry a reasonable wage or stipend.

    But there is nothing wrong with colleges and universities charging tuition for internships that carry college credit. If the internship has learning value related to the major, and if it is appropriately supervised by a faculty member, then the college credits should be paid for, same as any other.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 07/29/2016 - 11:09 am.

      How many credits?

      Colleges can require several credits (I have seen 6 credits or the equivalent of two full time classes) of internships. Should the university get that much tuition money ($225×6 = $1350) because a faculty member signed a standard form?

  4. Submitted by Dan Berg on 07/29/2016 - 11:44 am.

    Required Internships.

    The issue is that colleges often require students have internships in order to graduate. That is the practice that needs to be eliminated. If internships were optional each student could determine if it was worth it for them based on the pay and what it added to their job search.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/29/2016 - 05:33 pm.

    Another form of student abuse

    Requiring students to take unpaid internship AND pay for tuition of credit is like slavery, except that they slaves have to pay their living expenses and tuition they aren’t make. The reward – a bigger student loan, maybe a job in their field and maybe a decent salary for that job, but likely not enough to easily pay their loans.

    At the same time, topic college administrators make high six figure jobs and tenured professors have light teaching loads. And at major universities millions are paid even to successful coaches

    And students who can afford internships are more likely to finish their degrees and have the insider track on jobs, due to better connections, This is most true for wealthy legacy students.

    Think about these approaches create a have-have not situation for students. Particularly liberal colleges should look at themselves in the mirror, and adjust their financial aid packages to support needy students in the summer.

  6. Submitted by Anna Wagner Schliep on 08/09/2016 - 11:34 am.

    Unpaid internships aren’t really legal but get away with it

    From my understanding, there’s already a law that says it’s illegal not to pay interns if said intern is providing any value to the company. With the exception of fields like medical where you really can’t provide much value yet, if you’re not providing any value for your company as an intern then you’re not really learning much. But, companies get away with it all the time and I imagine there a legal loopholes around that as well.

    Completely agree that the system is messed up and I’ve never understood not paying interns. Interns often do real, entry-level work, and should be paid as such. I was lucky enough that I always got paid internships and summer positions, and that seems to be standard for my field (agriculture marketing). Had I gone into a different field though, or I had wanted to work in a much larger city, that might not have been the case.

    Financial aid wouldn’t cover summer credits so I used a good chunk of my intern wage to pay for the required 3 internships credits and most of the rest went to rent in a new city. All the professor assigned to my internship did was sign a paper confirming where I was working and read my paper on what I learned from my internship – definitely not worth the $700+ I had to pay in credits. If I’m paying for credits, I expect to learn something from the “class” or professor with isn’t the case with internships.

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