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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

It’s time to say goodbye to unpaid internships

While they may be legal, they are never really ethical


By CLAIRE SCHAD — cfschad@ucdavis.edu 


Internships, though not mandatory for graduation at UC Davis, offer valuable opportunities for students to explore career options and develop professional skills essential for job applications. Given this, society puts immense pressure on college students to get an internship before graduating. However, almost half of all internships are unpaid, making them unattainable for many students.   

Last winter, I was anxiously applying for internships in Washington, D.C., before my impending departure to the UC Davis Washington Program. I was nervous and excited about the opportunity to study and work in the nation’s capital for the spring quarter. However, my foremost concern was finding an internship. Like many of my peers, I spent hours searching LinkedIn, Indeed and other job bulletins, noticing that about half of all postings were for unpaid positions. Despite saving up before I left, the prospect of an unpaid internship in the fifth most expensive U.S. city made me nervous. However, I was not in a position to be picky, so I applied for various paid and unpaid internships. 

Luckily, after an intense search, I secured an internship that provided a monthly stipend. Even though I was paid less than half of D.C.’s minimum wage, I was still grateful for the financial support that the stipend provided; however, it came nowhere close to covering my living expenses.

While I was lucky enough to be in a position where the internship worked for me, many students don’t have that privilege. For some, the idea of forgoing regular wages to participate in an internship is impossible. Additionally, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and international students are often barred completely from receiving compensation for certain internships, including those in Congress.

Unpaid internships perpetuate class divisions and inequities, allowing wealthier students to complete unpaid work and boost their resumes while those who can’t afford it miss out on opportunities. Despite the evident barrier that unpaid or underpaid internships create, many companies and organizations fail to pay their interns adequately. 

So, if internships are crucial to our professional development, why are so many companies still refusing to pay their interns? Well, they do so because they can. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships (or any internship that pays less than minimum wage) are legal as long as the intern is the “primary beneficiary” of the experience. This means that the intern’s work must not be substituted for that of an employee, and the education that an intern receives while working can act as compensation. Despite these regulations, unpaid internships have been normalized, and nobody is checking to see if a person should be financially categorized as an intern or an employee. 

Even more frustrating, in most situations, interns are critical to the operation of certain offices and companies. During each of my internship experiences, supervisors explicitly stated that the office or organization would not be able to function without interns, which is true from my experience. This dependence on interns seems as though it would violate the requirements of the Fair Labor Standard Act, yet unpaid internships are still widespread. 

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there will be a nationwide overhaul on unpaid internships anytime soon. However, there are still ways the system can be improved. 

The Subsidizing Unpaid Interns Program was a promising step taken by the University of California D.C. program (UCDC) last fall. This new program provides all UCDC students who secure an unpaid internship with a $1000 stipend in the form of a scholarship for the term of their internship. While this is still not much, it is a step in the right direction and many other universities should consider implementing similar programs. Recognizing the barriers to the professional world that unpaid internships create is the first step toward change.   

If we want to foster diversity in leadership, change must start at the grassroots level with interns. Shifting to exclusively paid internship programs would attract a more diverse, qualified and expansive applicant pool, benefiting everyone and contributing to a more equitable future. 


Written by: Claire Schad — cfschad@ucdavis.edu 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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