Opinions

The Issue: Benefits and Drawbacks of Unpaid Internships

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By Anthony Barr

Benefits

Every internship is a paid internship. That is to say, every internship provides, at least on paper, compensation to the intern. Whether the currency of compensation is tangible, as in the case of money or college credit, or whether it is intangible, as in the case of learning and experience, every internship is paid. The question that is on the minds of those who discuss paid internships is thus not, “Should internships be paid?” but rather, “How, for the sake of justice and equity, should an internship be compensated?”. And more specifically, the divisive question is, “Should interns be paid monetarily?”

In terms of justice, I think it fair to say that since both parties are agreeing upon the terms of employment, any arrangement could be just in a subjective sense. If I agree to work 40 hours a week in exchange for a cup of coffee each day, that is certainly a bad deal for me and a great one for my employer. Nevertheless, in agreeing to the terms, provided I am not coerced, I have assented that there is value in the contract for me and that the terms are thus equitable. (The societal norms here help to prevent unfair power imbalances between the intern and the company. When cases like the recent lawsuit against Dualstar arise, they get public attention precisely because we are collectively concerned about equitable norms.) And if it were the norm that all internships were paid in this manner, I hardly think that many would object with an appeal to justice as an absolute.

It is only in relation to norms that the 40-hours-for-coffee can be seen as unjust. It is precisely because most internships provide more advantageous compensation that we can say that the coffee arrangement is, in its deviation from accepted norms, unjust. Likewise, I would imagine that paying an intern who performs menial tasks a wage higher than an experienced manager at a company would also be unjust, as it calls into question whether the manager is being fairly compensated or is cheating the company. In cases of unjust norms, it is up to society to replace those norms with more just alternatives. An example of this is the recent public attention and subsequent outcry regarding gender-based pay gaps, which is resulting in companies feeling pressured to change these norms.

I submit that a monetarily paid internship should have to have benefit as a normative for both employee and employer to be of value to society to be seen as just. Further, I submit that it does.

For the employee, money of course provides tangible benefits. I have held a paid internship that led to a job and pay raise and is now the basis for my freelance contracting gig that is helping me pay for college. During the course of the internship, that money helped me build up a savings account, allowed me to attend enriching events such as various performing arts exhibits, and gave me spending money.

However, being paid monetarily also benefits interns in less tangible ways. For example, money provides a definitive value to each hour spent working. The experience of seeing the “punch-in-punch-out = money earned” dynamic gave me a better understanding of the nature of work, business and time management.

Paying interns also benefits companies. Firstly, it is a basic safeguard that minimizes accidental or purposeful exploitation of workers. Secondly, it provides an objective rubric for evaluating the progress and overall success of the internship (i.e., “Is the work this intern produces worth the amount of money that I am paying?”, and vice versa, “Is the money that I am paying the intern a fair compensation for the work they are delivering?”, a question that requires conversation and relationship to answer well).

In conclusion, fair compensation is always subjective. Nevertheless, money provides a method of measuring equity for both employer and employee, and therefore paid internships are of benefit to employer, employee and society, more so than unpaid internships.

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By Eliza Brown

Drawbacks

Money plays an intricate role as currency: a dollar for a dollar’s equivalent. However, money blurs boundaries in questionable circumstances, and it becomes difficult to discern intentions for said outpouring. Is this payment for trade, for reward, or even for bribery? Don’t misunderstand: hard, valuable work deserves just reward, no matter what title or level of education the worker may hold. The question, though, is, “Does the idea of payment for on-the-job training extinguish the desire for exploration of sound opportunity?”

Allow the figurative stage to be set. It is the summer after college graduation. Life is feeling slightly like your oyster, but at the same time you’re dodging every person in your hometown who might inquire what you’re doing with your life; that question haunts your every social interaction in the most thwarting way. A glorious day of opportunity presents itself, looking a lot like a shining gold star for a resumé – an internship in the career path from which you just graduated only months prior. Talk about “#Blessed.” Now this scenario could diverge in two different directions. This internship could be ideal: 10 dollars an hour with an almost guaranteed position in the company with which you would be working. However, it could also seem less than ideal, in the case of an unpaid internship. The opportunity the words “unpaid internship” hold is the spice used in a dire effort to mask a bad meal: they don’t sound like a good idea, and when reality hits, they’re even worse. Life after or even during college more often than not means lots of debt and no time, two things in strong dissonance with giving your time for free. This mindset is a common side effect of graduation, when panic mode sets in, your eyes look more like dollar signs and your empty pockets are heavy with newfound responsibility. Yet when was common ground the safest ground?

Experience in a field of interest or study (God willing they are one and the same) is something to be earned through adherence. It is said in Psalm 128:2, “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you” (ESV). Lest we take it out of context, Psalm 128 was written as a song of ascent, and is to be read as an awe-inspired realization of one’s place in Christ’s family. It is easy to see our daily “labor,” be it our job, our schooling or anything else we fill our days with, as something of instant gratification: “I go to school so I can have a respectable career,” “I work hard every day at the office so I can make enough money to support my family” or “I am a stay-at-home mother/father, raising my children so they won’t have to struggle as I did.” Our reasons for living are glistening with what we expect in return, and those gains are what embolden us to keep going. Nothing about working hard for a goal is awry, but a beautiful promise is often overlooked in the bustle of life: “It shall be well with you.”

A paid internship is hardly a negative thing; it is an incredible blessing if you are able to obtain a paid position. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that an unpaid internship could be an opportunity free of the fogginess of reward. It would allow you to take an extra step of exploration in the direction in which you see yourself going without later feeling obliged to stay, out of fear of losing both job and financial security. Accepting an unpaid position is an opportunity to proclaim that it is well and dodge the tenacious attraction of money in your search for the direction of your future.

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