Why Unpaid Internships are Inherently Classist

I recently had an interview for an internship with an environmental company I really admired. They needed someone to run their social media, write blog posts, create and edit videos and a handful of other media related responsibilities. The interview was going really well until about halfway through when she said, ‘let’s talk about compensation.’

“This is a volunteer internship,” she said. ” It’s an unpaid position, but it’s really great to have on your resume and will help you gain job experience.”

I smiled and nodded, pretending to completely understand why they couldn’t pay me and finished the interview. Within 48 hours, they sent me an email confirmation offering me the position.

I spent the day thinking about what to do. They needed me for a minimum of 10 hours a week, but wanted to push it closer to 20 if possible. If I could find another part-time job that paid around $12 an hour (which was a pretty lofty goal), then I could make $960 a month before taxes. My rent and utilities cost me around $1,000 a month (Boulder is not a cheap place to live by yourself), which would mean I’d be in the hole $40 a month before buying groceries, which at the bare minimum would put me about another $200 in debt every month. Not to mention car insurance and other payments needed to make living and working in Boulder possible.

I emailed the hiring manager and explained that I would need to be paid to make the position work, as I couldn’t afford my rent without a full time job. I never received a response from her.

At first I was disappointed, and then I was just plain pissed. I have a BA in environmental studies from the University of Pittsburgh, with a GIS certificate and a creative writing minor. I have a few years of experience with environmental volunteer work and activism as well as some fieldwork experience. I worked for Carnegie Museum of Natural History for three years in a position very related to my degree. I’m halfway through my master’s degree in environmental journalism as well, with experience writing for the University of Colorado’s alumni magazine.

I have spent the last five years of my life working my ass off going to school and holding down a job, and companies are willing to hire me, but just not willing to pay me.

I am so sick of hearing my professors, advisors and employers telling me that internships ‘pay in experience.’ Because I’m pretty sure I can’t pay my rent or grocery bills with ‘experience.’ I could be offered the best unpaid opportunity in the world, and it wouldn’t change the fact that I wouldn’t have money to live and eat while doing the internship.

I have no idea when this phenomenon started– hiring students but not paying them. Sure back in the day there were apprentices, but even they were often given food and housing, and there was a full time job in it for them at the end of it. Today, internships pay nothing and often lead nowhere.

It is impossible for the average 18-23 year old to afford not to be paid. And the students that can afford it are those who are still getting compensation from their parents for rent and food and anything else they might need. Which means that the only people able to get enough experience to actually land a good job after graduating are those that had the money to afford unpaid internships while they were in college.

And even then, I’m not sure how students afforded it. I was lucky enough to have parents and grandparents that made sure my undergraduate degree was paid for. And I still needed to work during the school year to create a savings account, which I ended up needing when I moved to Colorado and started graduate school (which I am entirely paying for on my own). I had a very easy financial life for the most part, and I still didn’t feel like I had the resources to take on an unpaid internship.

So many of my professors and advisors told me I’d never land a real job if I didn’t have internship experience first. And the sad part is they were right.

I’ve been scanning through the job market lately, considering taking a little break from my program, and realized even with a college degree and a three to four years of work experience, I still didn’t have enough particular experience for the jobs I want to apply for. They call them ‘entry level’ positions, with the next bullet point down saying ‘two to four years of experience in this exact line of work required.’

Not preferred, not optional, but required. And I know that sometimes places will still offer you positions if you don’t fit their minimum requirements, but I applied for 22 positions, and heard back from only one–doing reception work, because they were desperate to fill their front desk.

It seems that companies have forgotten what the term ‘entry level’ means.

Many positions now demand that the average 22 year old have four years of experience in a related field because they expect them to do an internship every summer while they are in college. And then they offer salaries starting at 25k a year, and somehow expect these recent graduates to pay back their loans, which they couldn’t even start picking at while they were in college because they had to do unpaid work every second of free time they had.

But even worse, most universities now require students to do an internship as part of their graduation credentials. In my program at the University of Pittsburgh, I had to do an internship for a minimum of 140 hours in one semester to graduate. I asked my advisor if it would be possible to have my museum position count as my internship and his first question was, ‘is that a paid position?’ When I said yes, he paused and said, ‘look, I’ll make it work for you, because I know how hard it is not to be paid, but the University really doesn’t approve of paid internship positions.’

I’m so disappointed in myself now for not throwing a fit when I heard this. What do you mean the university doesn’t approve of paid internship positions? Why the hell not? Why shouldn’t a student be paid for real work they are doing for real companies?

And I got lucky. I got lucky that my advisor was understanding and that my schedule made it possible for me to work during the semester. But some students don’t have the time during the school year to work, and so they have to do their internships during the summer. And because universities require students to do these internships for credit, that means they have to pay the university for the credits they take doing their internship over the summer, which means that students are paying to work for free.

Students are paying the university to do an internship (which doesn’t require professors, classes or any university resources) with a company that isn’t going to pay them.

At the University of Pittsburgh, three credits of a summer internship could cost you more than $3,000.

But what surprises me most is that students aren’t in a bigger outrage over this. So many of my peers just put their heads down, work a crappy unpaid internship, pay their university and give up.

Although I had never previously taken an unpaid internship, this was the first year I actually put my foot down, took a stand and said ‘no’ to them. I preached it to my friends and to the faculty at CU Boulder. They rolled their eyes and told me ‘it’s just the way the world works.’ I watched my friends take on ridiculous numbers of hours to get their internship credits for our master’s program and go into even more debt because they didn’t have the time to take on any paying jobs, go to school and do an internship.

If professors and advisors really care about their students, they will address the heads of their departments and end this classist system that favors the wealthy and punishes those that actually have to work real, non-degree related jobs to make ends meet.

I have no problem with universities requiring internships to graduate, but students absolutely should not have to pay for credit hours to finish them, and they should not be allowed to take on positions that do not pay. This only continues to engender feelings of worthlessness and apathy in our youth.

If you are currently a student, think long and hard about the system you are perpetuating if you take an unpaid internship. If you are a professor, advisor or university faculty member, think deeply about the classist divide you create when you push your students to take on these positions. And if you are part of a company that takes on unpaid interns, know that by saying nothing you are perpetuating a classist system that benefits the wealthy and lazy and punishes the poor and hard working.



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