The professional communications major at my university requires that every senior complete a capstone internship in which the gain experience in the kinds of jobs they may find after graduation. I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of an internship – both as a commodity, as a cost-savings for companies, and as a cost for our students. What’s more, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we are preparing students to become cogs in the corporate machine.
Maybe I’m overstating that? I don’t know. Here are somethings to think about.
1. Students pay for the privilege of doing free labor. The student is paying tuition to to work for a company. The majority of our students’ internships are unpaid. So, when they take them as course credit, they pay an exceptional amount of money to complete free labor. Some interns have gone so far as to compare their internships to slave labor. Moreover, the students have to pay for their own transportation to and from the internship and in some cases travel to different areas of the city for the organization. In effect, the students pay for experience.
2. Companies use students for unsavory work. While we do our best to make sure that the students are gaining relevant experience, sometimes they do little more than data entry and phone calls. The organizations use them as cheap labor for the work their employees don’t want to complete. And they get away with it because they can. In many cases, the experience these students acquire is more cultural and than practical, which undermines a lot of the purpose of the internship. Or, at the very least, it begins to prepare them for the levels of exploitation they my encounter in the “real world.”
3. Students aren’t really employees, so they aren’t always protected. In a few cases, my students have recounted experiences of feeling used or having conflicts with other interns. In one case, one of the other interns was overtly racist toward my student. My student noted that she wanted a good reference from this internship and was worried about rocking the boat. She also worries about the employer just asking her to leave. What could she do?
4. Students aren’t commodities, but this system treats them as such. Universities trade student labor for prestige. Many career services departments love to tout the companies in which the place students – the higher on the Fortune list the better. Students become profit centers for both universities and the companies they intern for.
Are there ways in which even unpaid internships could be done more ethically?
1. Don’t make students pay for them. We could encourage students to still do the internships, but find ways to compensate the faculty/staff who oversee them without making them register for a course.
2. Partner with non-profits and organizations that align with your values. Students can gain a lot of the same experience while also doing good works. Internship programs that focus on helping people rather than profits can be a easy way to make the work of students more meaningful. The work they do for non-profits is volunteering rather than working for free. This difference is critical.
3. Find on-campus opportunities. I didn’t own a car in college. Requiring an off-campus internship would have been a serious hardship for me. There are ways students can learn and practice their professional skills on campus.
4. Pay interns – even if it’s only minimum wage. If corporate internships are required, interns should get paid. We need to teach the people who most need internships (women and people of color who don’t have familial connections) that their labor is worth something.
Ultimately, how we conduct internships may need to change. We have to recognize that not all students can afford to spend 100 hours a semester working for nothing.