While internships can be valuable education experiences, interns should be paid a living wage for their work
In the midst of summer internship applications, many students—members of the Editorial Board included—can begin to lose track of the goal of an internship: to gain experience in a field of interest. But this is not entirely our fault—internship positions have become more akin to entry-level jobs, requiring outstanding prior projects, multiple references and a history of accomplishment.
It makes sense that organizations want their interns to be qualified and hard-working, but the point of an internship is for students to gain work experience and explore career options before entering the workforce. The Internship and Career Center (ICC) at UC Davis mentions developing new skills and practically applying knowledge from courses as benefits of an internship. Realistically, though, students must already have practical skills and knowledge as well as some connection to their organizations of interest in order to gain those benefits.
With internships becoming increasingly competitive and selective, some organizations don’t even provide rejection letters and instead send vague emails acknowledging that an application was submitted and that due to the high volume of applicants, a response may not be sent. It shouldn’t be that difficult to send applicants who didn’t make the cut a simple, automated email to let them know that they won’t be offered a position.
Applicants are encouraged to send follow up emails and connect with recruiters to demonstrate tenacity and an eagerness to work at a company. But students are expected to send out so many applications: According to the No. 1 job site Indeed, individuals should apply for a minimum of 20 internships every application cycle. Sending that many personalized follow-ups when there may not even be an indication it has been received is more of a chore than anything else. Again, if the point of these positions is to provide a new experience that will help students explore a professional field, why are there so many hoops to jump through, most of which have nothing to do with the required skills for the position?
After the grueling application and interview process, some internship positions pay less than minimum wage, and others are completely unpaid—this is unacceptable. Interns should be paid at least a living wage, even if it is a stipend, and if they are completing work that a full-time employee would be doing, their compensation should reflect that.
With the uncertainty surrounding paid internships, some students prefer to seek other employment over the summer. Attending UC Davis is expensive, and the summer is the one chunk of time that students may not be taking classes. Unpaid interns do get “experiential education,” but working a paid job for those same hours could allow students to work one less job during the academic year, provide students with income to help pay rent or help pay off student loans—why would they pick an unpaid internship over that?
There are multiple possible answers: It is a resume booster, it can allow for future internship opportunities that could lead to a job, it helps build a network in a field of interest. Inherently, though, internships are accessible to the students who have a comfortable income to fall back on as well as the luxury of time to submit applications, meet recruiters and follow up on each application.
On top of that, students who have connections with employees at companies they hope to work at may receive an unfair advantage that sets them apart from equally qualified peers who aren’t lucky enough to know someone at the company. But with a system as competitive as it is, those students can’t really be faulted for using their connections—unless they lie about how they got there and refuse to acknowledge their own privilege.
Students who receive help from acquaintances at their companies of choice must be cognizant of what they’re doing, and if they’re in a position to help others, they have an obligation to do so. Although it is not students’ responsibility to completely overhaul a system that clearly disadvantages certain students, their refusal to help peers form connections and refusal to accept that their privilege played a role in landing a position makes them complicit in upholding existing power dynamics.
Surrounded by peers churning out dozens of applications, it can be hard to remember that your worth does not come from whatever summer internship you do or do not get. Internships can be valuable experiences, but we all must bear in mind the privilege that comes with even being able to apply for positions and help those around us.
Written by: The Editorial Board