The Lala Investigates: Breaking Down The Issue Of Unpaid Internships

Disclaimer: You’re about to read an article that digs into the problems and issues surrounding unpaid internships—written by a woman who has completed four unpaid internships.

Sound a little hypocritical? Hear me out.

Issue of payment aside, it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of interning. Internships offer a type of insight into the work force that students just won’t find in the classroom. There are plenty of amazing, hands-on college courses that students can take to develop specific skills for their future careers, but sometimes there’s just nothing quite like watching an editor or manager at work right before your eyes.

When I started college, it all seemed so simple: I knew I wanted to work for my favorite publications in the future, so I made it my goal to intern at them.

But it didn’t take me long to discover that most of my dream internships had one huge catch—they offered zero pay.

It’s not that I didn’t work hard enough at my internships to earn a paycheck. I put in tons of effort, clocked in long hours and somehow worked around my lack of income (despite the many days where I would wonder how I was even going to pay for public transportation to get to my unpaid job).

I wasn’t bitter toward my bosses. The fact that my internships were unpaid was out of my editors’ control (Company policy. Womp, womp).

The true issue was a systematically deep one that affects industries like journalism and fashion big time. For students like me trying to break into the publishing industry, there are essentially two choices—either intern at big name publications for free, or not at all. Without many options, I felt forced to choose the former.

I may have given into the system but that does not mean I don’t have my fair share of grievances. Unpaid internships put many students at a disadvantage.

Need a job to supplement your income? Forget about it. Most internships are full-time. While you’re working M-F unpaid, you won’t have the time to pick up a second job.

Don’t live in the city? Good luck. You’ll have to shell out big bucks to find housing near your company’s headquarters.

Want a job afterward? No guarantee. You may very well head back to campus without a job offer after spending an entire semester working for free

I’m not alone in my concerns. The ever-increasing intensity of this issue caused publishing giant Condé Nast to shut down their internship program all together in 2013 after several interns banded together to form a lawsuit against their former employer (‘twas a sad day for wannabe Lauren Conrads everywhere with big dreams of working in the fashion closet of Teen Vogue).

But even the testimonials of disgruntled underpaid interns haven’t stopped nearly 30% of college students from taking unpaid positions, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

There’s no doubt that applications for unpaid internships are coming in strong, regardless of NACE’s report that states interns who get paid are almost twice as likely as their unpaid counterparts to get job offer upon graduation.

So if unpaid internships come with no money and no job offer, then what’s the mass appeal?

Unpaid internships offer the promise of “getting a foot in the door” and making connections. Many students swear their internship experiences have been far more worthwhile than any time they would have spent reading textbooks in a classroom.

But unfortunately, some of the most coveted internships are the ones that are unpaid. The fashion and publishing industries are the leaders of unpaid internships. Instead of money, they promise interns a chance to meet the best of the best. Interns shake hands, rub elbows and share offices with leading editors, designers and CEOs.

The very reasons I decided to intern for free.

However, the big question is were my internships even legal? According to the Department of Labor, an unpaid internship is only legal if it meets the following criteria:

  • The internship must be similar to the training students would find in an educational environment
  • The internship must be for the benefit of the intern, not just the employer
  • The intern cannot displace paid employees
  • The employer cannot benefit financially from the work the intern is doing
  • The internship cannot serve as an unpaid “tryout” for a formal job
  • Both the intern and the employer must understand the position is unpaid. No surprises.

The chance that an unpaid internship meets all six requirements is unlikely. Think about it: in what world does working for no pay benefit the intern more than the employer?

Despite concerns of exploitation, interestingly enough students very rarely report any wrongdoing. The Department of Labor confirms that they only receive a handful of complaints each year. If an intern does attempt to sue, the lawsuit often settles outside of court.

And if the student is receiving credit for the internship, any legal claims to compensation are instantly compromised. Once credit is awarded, the minimum wage rules no longer apply.

Which leads to yet another complicated facet of the unpaid internship debate. To wiggle their way around the laws, unpaid internships often require students to work for credit—but universities usually make students pay per credit. This means students have to shell out yet another thousand dollars to work for free. If interns are expected to be in the office five days a week, students aren’t able to pick up a second job to help alleviate the credit costs if mom and dad can’t cover the expenses. This makes it nearly impossible for financially strained students to intern at the big name companies with unpaid internship programs.

Chalk it up as another advantage for the privileged.

Whether it’s paid or unpaid, a true internship should give you real world experience, help you gain desirable skills, and make connections that lead to a future job. It should not leave you feeling exploited, unappreciated and completely broke. If you’re not getting anything out of your unpaid internship, then maybe you’re better off seeking an alternative.

There is nothing wrong with racking up as many internships as possible if you truly believe it will help you get a leg up in the job world.

But it’s up to you to decide at what cost.

Image Via Anna Thetard

Maria Fischer

Contributor, Ohio University Major: Journalism Major Specializing in Media Arts Her heart belongs to: Cosmopolitan, The Weeknd, a large glass of red wine and celebrity babies You can find her: Instagram stalking Food Network stars

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