The Cost of Experience: Paying to Work
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012
Updated: Friday, January 27, 2012 00:01
Unpaid internships are the new black. They're trendy and serve as the ultimate resume boost for an increasingly competitive job market. But they're becoming an unfair burden to students.
We can't change the fact that unpaid positions are a reality of our generation's job market, and there are certain internships that pay sufficiently in experience to make up for a lack of monetary compensation. But in the middle of internship application season, students have to contend with not only the applications themselves, but also protecting themselves from being taken advantage of by employers.
In today's job market, internships are essential, but a growing number of summer positions are unpaid. Though there are exceptions — notably in the banking and consulting sectors — government, non-profit and other popular industries usually offer only a modest stipend at best. Some employers have even replaced a number of paid employees with unpaid interns, taking advantage of students' eagerness to gain workplace experience and strengthen their resumes.
But this wave of unpaid internships can't be blamed on employers; it's just the result of classic market capitalism. Why pay people to do work that they are willing to do for free?
Unfortunately, this environment leaves students in a financial bind. Housing in big cities like D.C. and New York is pricey. Add in additional costs of living like food and transportation, and interns often can't avoid falling into the red over the summer.
To help ease the financial strain, students can take several measures, such as interning only part-time while working another better-paying job. They can spend one summer working to save up money and then intern the next summer.
Students should also seriously assess whether or not they can afford an unpaid internship at all. If they cannot, there is no shame in discussing payment or stipend options with possible employers.
To protect interns, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Economic Policy Institute have set out specific criteria that a company must meet before it is legally allowed to not pay its interns. Joe and Jane Hoya's nightmare unpaid internship is the one that revolves round trips back and forth from a Xerox machine and the local Starbucks.
Should interns find that their responsibilities are dramatically less than what they expected, they should speak up. The law is on their side: Employers have an obligation to either meet the legal standards of unpaid internships or pay up. Copy-making and coffee delivery services cannot, by the letter of the law, come for free.
There are some unpaid internships worth committing to if they have the potential to advance students' careers. But there's no rule that says students are obligated to work for free. If you're going to pass up paychecks this summer, make sure you're doing so for a worthwhile experience.