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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Unpaid Internships

Starbucks coffee.

Starbucks coffee.

Gaining valuable experience, or making coffee runs?

Kelly Shi

Although it is currently winter, students are already beginning their search for summer internships. It’s quite a competitive process, with 75% of undergraduates serving internships and up to half of them without pay. Despite their popularity, unpaid internships remain the subject of ethical scrutiny and debate.

Proponents of unpaid internships argue that students benefit significantly in ways that money cannot buy. Students could gain first-hand experience in the industry of their interest, which could then help students make more informed decisions on what career paths to pursue. Unpaid internships can also provide a great line on a student’s resume as proof of skills learned on the job (or rather, internship). Additionally, unpaid internships provide students with the opportunity to make valuable connections in their desired industries, which might lead to positive recommendations or job leads in the future. In response to commonly voiced concerns about the exploitation of student labor, proponents of unpaid internships point to the 6-point Test for Unpaid Interns issued by the Fair Labor Standards Act as legal reassurance against unethical unpaid internships. 

However, others are troubled by the fact that there are no official means of enforcing the FLSA’s rules for permissible unpaid internships. These critics maintain that some companies exploit unpaid interns by making them perform menial tasks (such as making coffee runs) which offer no value to a student’s professional development. Furthermore, unpaid internships disproportionately hurt students who are already economically disadvantaged, since some students cannot afford to spend their summers working for free. This does not include the additional cost of transportation or lodging required by some internships, which present yet another financial hurdle to students already struggling to afford the rising costs of college. Some critics also argue that unpaid internships ultimately harm society by stunting class mobility and perpetuating the privilege found within certain sectors, such as the art and entertainment industries which almost exclusively offer unpaid internships. Additionally, unpaid internships seem to devalue not only the labor of student interns but also that of paid employees, who are subsequently threatened by the free labor readily provided by unpaid interns. 

What do you make of these arguments? Do you have unpaid internship stories of your own? Share with us below!

Kelly Shi is the Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. 

Feb 22, 2016