Editorial: Unpaid internships are medieval


Collegian Editorial Board

Apprenticeships are one of the longest practiced methods of education in human history. During the Middle Ages, European apprenticeships usually entailed a young student committing a certain amount of work to a master. In return, the master fed and housed the student while teaching him the methods of his trade. By modern standards, these arrangements were certainly brutal, but in the Middle Ages, an apprenticeship offered immediate sustainment and the possibility of future success as an artisan.

The apprenticeship has evolved in Europe. In Scotland, the “Modern Apprenticeship” program allows for the trainees to work a salary job with academic support, earning up to a master’s degree without ever leaving the workforce. In England, apprentices are at least entitled to a minimum wage. Meanwhile, in America, the white-collar sector has rebranded the ancient practice with an exploitative twist.

Enter: the unpaid internship.

Unpaid internships are often summer programs requiring students to relocate and work for free. Some of these internships take place in cities with a high cost of living. According to CNBC, living in Los Angeles for a summer would cost roughly $9,500 — that’s not including the opportunity cost for interns to forgo working that summer. Working 12 weeks for 40 hours each, even at federal minimum wage, amounts to $3,480. These totals combined amount to interns sacrificing $12,980 to work for a company in their desired industry. At least the medieval master let the poor kid sleep in the workshop.

Unpaid internships revolve around the idea that the work further educates the intern, but a search for unpaid internships in the Midwest showed that many companies required applicants to already possess the skills for the job. Such demands included: outstanding writing skills, proficiency with Adobe Creative Suite and some even required 1-2 years of prior relevant experience. The casting calls suggest that companies aren’t interested in training future industry employees; they’re interested in scoring free labor off of students desperate to make themselves employable after graduation.

Unfortunately, the connection between unpaid internships and post-graduation employment is a lie. According to Forbes, 60% of paid internships lead to job offers, while only 37% of unpaid internships yield job offers. Meanwhile, 36% of graduates who did not work an internship received job offers.

The executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Marilyn Mackes, chalks up the discrepancy to companies delegating menial tasks to unpaid interns, while paid interns are usually heavily involved with relevant work. The common belief that internships lead to employment creates a coercive environment in which students believe they must attain an internship. Graduation requirements and hiring practices reinforce the belief. This leads students to accept exploitative terms, working for free in hopes of a later payout.

We at The Collegian, believe that unpaid internships are unethical, and their perceived necessity is the coercive creation of labor-hungry industries operating under the guise of benefactors. As education institutions such as SDSU and the University of Wisconsin introduce internships as graduation requirements, we suspect that unpaid internships will pose an equity issue, alienating lower-class students who cannot afford to work for free.

Perhaps one should consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word: “Intern, v. (originally) to oblige (a person) to reside within prescribed limits; (now usually) to detain (a person) without trial in an internment camp.”

The Collegian Editorial Board meets weekly and agrees on the issue of the editorial. The editorial represents the opinion of The Collegian.