Editorial: Unpaid internships and inequality


The ISD Editorial Board argues that unpaid internships are unfair and increase socioeconomic inequality in the workplace. 

Editorial Board

You need experience to get a job, but you need to have a job to get experience. 

All college students and recent graduates are more than aware of the job search catch-22. One of the only viable solutions is to have an internship during college. 

Iowa State even requires internships for many majors, particularly in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  

Internships are a great way for students to get out into the real world and see if they really want to work in their chosen field full time. Internships are also a common way to get into the hands-on learning environment, those experiential learning experiences. 

If you can land an internship, then you should absolutely consider doing one. 

That is, if you can afford it.

In 2019, close to 40 percent of internships were unpaid. The largest percentage of unpaid internships is in the social services sector, but there are unpaid internships in most fields. 

Unpaid internships are considered legal if they pass the primary beneficiary test adopted by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the Department of Labor. There are seven factors included in the test to determine who is the primary beneficiary, but the WHD has said the test is flexible and every case is unique.

The most important aspect of unpaid internships is that the intern is the primary beneficiary. If it’s the other way around, then the intern is really an employee and, according to the WHD, should be paid as such. 

Some people argue, however, that all interns should be paid, regardless of the standards of the federal government. A lot of people, actually.

We agree.

People should be paid for their work. While students are getting something out of even unpaid internships — knowledge, experience or maybe college credit — there are a lot of unintended consequences from unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships worsen socioeconomic inequality. If only some students can afford to have them, then a number of candidates are already excluded. This not only affects the students who are unable to have the internship but can also impact the job market as a whole. 

Companies benefit from unpaid internships, true, but they’re also hurt by them. They are limiting the diversity of the candidates that apply and may not be receiving applications from the most qualified candidates. 

This is not an abstract issue. Iowa State has majors that require students to have an internship before graduation. If a student can only find an unpaid internship, they are essentially paying to take the class and in turn provide labor. 

It’s not inaccurate to say many students have to give more than they get from unpaid internships. 

Students must first qualify for these internships, paid or unpaid. This means students pay for classes to learn skills to apply for internships and then get very little in return.

True, there’s value beyond money. Experience is important. But for many students, money has to be the priority — they simply cannot afford to have an unpaid internship. 

An argument in favor of any internship is the networking aspect, but those who would benefit the most from getting a leg up are the very students who can’t afford to take most internships. 

Another huge issue is the lack of protections for unpaid interns. The purpose of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is to protect employees; if interns aren’t employees, then does this protection apply? 

Only in some states

This means unpaid interns will have little to no standing in court should discrimination prohibited by Title VII takes place. They are lacking crucial protections that their co-workers are not. 

Unpaid interns should not be considered volunteers. Students take internships out of necessity: to land a job, to network, to gain experience. They are not doing this for charity. They are working in professional environments side by side with paid workers and under the supervision of higher-level employees. 

They mirror employees in nearly all the ways that matter except for the most important one. 

Students should absolutely complete internships for the experience, the networking and the on-the-job learning, but not every student has the opportunity and ability to do so. 

We support internships and even schools requiring them — but only if students are getting fairly compensated. Students, as with any other person that provides work, should be paid for their labor.