The Reality of Unpaid Internships

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Many students seek internships in the hopes of furthering their employment opportunities. Dean Swift examines the actual value of an unpaid internship. 

Most jobs in Ireland require experience nowadays, and perhaps the most valuable tool for students to gain this experience is through internships. While some internships offer great access to a company in which one is employed, and offer a salary, most do not. In certain fields internships are the only bridge between education and full-time employment in the field. While the opportunities with companies that take the internship programme seriously and provide a chance at future full-time employment are undoubtedly beneficial, other informal and unpaid internships have a noted history of negatively affecting one’s employment opportunities.

In 2014 the Irish Times interviewed a number of interns about their positions. The report notes the experience of one intern, who advises students to avoid internships that detail the type of work as “administrative tasks” such tasks indicating a job that is more reflective of copying and pasting for several hours a day, and gaining no valuable experience. The reality of this situation is that some companies simply abuse the unpaid internship process for free labour. As such, it circumvents the idea of upward mobility, and ensures that some never get a foot in the door of the career they wish to pursue.

It highlights how an unpaid internship can force someone to end the pursuit of their career path

Forbes published an article in 2016 highlighting how hiring rates after an “unpaid internship (37%) were almost the same for those who had not completed any internship at all (35%),” while the employment rate for a paid internship resulted in 63% employment afterwards. It is reasonable to ask, does an unpaid internship provide any real benefit? One could say it provides the experience one needs, but as mentioned before many exist in the “administrative tasks” category. This should be taken into account when assessing whether unpaid internships should be undertaken, and in a broader sense, if they should be removed altogether.

There is also the undeniable disparity between the opportunities for people of different backgrounds. Unpaid internships have been described as classist because certain individuals need to work to live and provide for themselves, or to help out with their family. These types of internships exclude those who need a source of income, while others that come from a well-off background have a greater advantage due to not having this concern. Taking an internship that does not guarantee future employment is a gamble for any person struggling financially, and therefore they have more to lose in that situation.

There is also the undeniable disparity between the opportunities for people of different backgrounds when it comes to internships

The report by the Irish Times also noted a respondent who claimed “she will have to emigrate or do paid work in an area unrelated to her expertise rather than do another internship. She, and her parents, simply can’t afford to have her working unpaid any more.” Examples such as these highlight how an unpaid internship can force someone to end the pursuit of their career path, which is especially damaging when considering Irish graduates often need to emigrate to find employment. There is an increasingly negative case against the existence of unpaid internships, and their existence should either be carefully monitored, so that they are simply not a labour abuse mechanism, or removed altogether.

The Forbes article also noted the difference in salaries of those who had done paid and unpaid internships, and those who had no internship experience at all. “Those with unpaid internships tended to take lower-paying jobs than those with no internship experience whatsoever ($35,721 and $37,087, respectively). Students with paid internships far outpaced their peers with an average $51,930 salary.” These figures reflect poorly on unpaid internships, with the employment rate being virtually the same for those who received an unpaid internship and those who had no experience. It is an easy argument to make that they actually cost more money to pursue them than they are worth.

We need to carefully examine the existence of these unpaid internships. While they have the potential to be of great benefit to a student in pursuit of their desired career path, the current reality suggests that they are actually detrimental to the pursuit of any given career. That is not to suggest that all unpaid internships operate this way, but it suggests that most do. The situation shows the current reality that most unpaid internships are elitist in nature and prevent upward mobility or completely restricts one’s ability to gain employment in the desired career. They provide no relevant experience in said career, and result in a reduced salary that in a roundabout way exists as a charge for engaging in an unpaid internship. It is crucial for students both young and old to understand the nature of these internships as they seek experience.

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