Students pay the price to intern

It’s that time of the school year when I start to wonder where all that financial aid money went. I can look back and justify most of the money I spent this semester. I definitely needed those burritos and I’m hoping those expensive textbooks come in handy around finals time.

What I can’t seem to figure out is how I ended up paying roughly $600 to SF State for the opportunity to work at an unpaid internship for zero dollars an hour.

Internships have become pretty common for college students these days, and for good reason. An internship can provide valuable on-the-job experience, great networking opportunities and gives students a foot in the door, where otherwise there might not be one.

The problem doesn’t lie with internships themselves, it lies in the fact that many of them are unpaid. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that students receive course credit in exchange for their labor, but unpaid interns are missing out on more than a paycheck.

Presumably, we’re all in school so that we can eventually find a job that we enjoy that pays us enough to get by. It sets a dangerous precedent to instill in the heads of students just entering the workforce that their time is worth so little. It’s demoralizing and can lead to a devaluation of one’s own self-worth. Beyond the negative implications to the intern’s self-confidence, working for no pay leaves students woefully unprepared to negotiate for an actual salary when they enter the world of paid labor.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets guidelines as to how interns are to be utilized, stipulates that employers aren’t supposed to derive any economic benefit from the actions of the intern, but this rule isn’t always followed, according to Fog City Journal Executive Editor Kat Anderson.

“Internships are supposed to be about preparing the intern for whatever industry they’re going into,” Anderson said. “But what I’m hearing a lot of the time is that interns are being taken advantage of. You have the employers asking ‘What can you (the intern) do for us?’ and it should be the opposite.”

Carl Hall, executive director of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, thinks that the economic downturn may have something to do with employers taking advantage of unpaid staffers.

“I realize that money is an issue,” Hall said. “But hiring an intern shouldn’t be about saving money. It should be about serving the students, stocking the talent pool and building the student’s skill set. It’s not supposed to just be a source of cheap ass labor.”

With tuition hovering around $3,100 a semester and the average SF State student taking between 12-15 units, we’re each dropping roughly $225 per unit. It doesn’t take a statistics major to figure out how much a three-unit internship will cost you, without even considering lost opportunities to work at jobs that might actually result in a paycheck.

As if having to pay to work for free wasn’t bad enough, many of us who do so are paying with borrowed money.

The 2011 Project on Student Debt, conducted by the Institute for College Access and Success, found that 42 percent of SF State students finish school owing money. Approximately $17,000 worth, to be exact. While not all of this money can be attributed to paying for internships, it does mean that the $600 I paid to work for free this semester is likely to cost me much more after interest begins to accrue.

There are less concrete ramifications of having to pay to give your labor away for free.
A 2012 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that unpaid interns were far less successful than their counterparts who were compensated for their work. Paid interns (who averaged roughly $16 an hour) were more likely to get a job offer from their employer, have a job upon completing their education and receive a higher starting salary than their peers who worked for free, according to the NACE survey.

In a perfect world, we’d be moving toward a system where anybody who works, including the lowly intern, would be fairly compensated for their time. I’m not naive enough to think that this is coming anytime soon, but in the interest of taking baby steps toward some semblance of fairness, it only seems rational to stop making students pay to work for free. Either colleges needs to come up with some sort of no-cost unit applicable to unpaid internships or these companies that “hire” interns need to pony up the money it cost to take on these unpaid positions.

Latest comments
  • Think about this in terms of supply and demand — if there’s so many people with your degree that many (most?) of them will work for free, that means the degree itself is simply not valuable.

    Perhaps American universities should follow the Chinese model and only subsidize majors in areas where there’s employment opportunities?

  • Kale, thank you for taking on this important subject. I re-confirm my commitment to providing benefits to students, and encourage the journalism students to get in touch with me about the summer project that we are operating at Pacific Media Workers Guild this summer. katanderson@fogcityjournal.com
    Get a chance to get up close and personal with Bay Area media professionals, get a mentor, hear from career navigation specialists and get your high-quality work published for pay! This is not an internship. This is a free program for those who join as student members of the Guild (only $6 per month). Find out more at http://guildfreelancers.org/gf/?page_id=11