Exposure Doesn’t Pay the Bills, but Internships Should



Companies choosing not to pay their interns shows a lack of appreciation and is an unethical move. Photo courtesy of oksmith.


Looking beyond the average textbook, students see two main ways to gain professional experience: jobs and internships. Due to many jobs demanding extraneous hours, internships have been seen as the path to develop professional aptitude. However, unpaid internships have become routine in many professions, causing a divide among those who are financially or academically stable enough to pursue them and those who are not.

The legal process of unpaid internships started in 1938 when The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. This law entails that all for-profit and non-profit employers who make an annual income over $500,000 have to pay their employees for work. However, the law was soon disrupted during the 1947 Walling v. Portland Terminal Company Supreme Court case. Portland Terminal Company, a terminal railroad company based in Portland, Michigan, offered an unpaid program for those wanting to gain exposure in railroad jobs. The workers eventually sued the company, and the lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court. The case was settled in the company’s favor, where the Supreme Court acknowledged the program’s workers as “trainees,” rather than employees. They further stated that “the trainee’s work [did] not expedite the railroad’s business, but may, and sometimes [did], actually impede and [delay] it.” The decision created a longer-lasting effect and introduced unpaid internships to the workplace.

For many young workers, having an internship experience offers them a broad spectrum of opportunities and allows them to get a feel for the work environment. However, while many people value exposure without pay, others believe that businesses exploit younger workers and use them for free labor. Additionally, without receiving compensation from internships, many workers are forced into finding other options to pay for their necessities. With internships consuming a considerable amount of time, doing so is quite frankly impossible.

As many occupations’ political, environmental, and social agendas rise, workplaces must cultivate young talent to provide stability for the future. Although education may provide students with many tools needed to be employed, hands-on experience establishes and amplifies their potential. By providing paid internships, companies can draw in more talent and mature their workers. Additionally, those working for internships are able to have some sort of financial stability in their lives.

According to a National Society of Experiential Education study, in 2019, over 62 percent of college graduates had interned at some point in their career. This number jumped from less than 3 percent in 1981 and 17 percent in 1992. Additionally, there are around 1.5 million internships in the U.S. With the rising influx of interns, it is apparent that their importance to the professional workplace has escalated.

However, while it is evident that interns make up an extensive sector in the job market, research shows that over 40 percent of interns are still unpaid. As a result, only students coming from privileged backgrounds are eligible for these roles. The deepening generational wealth gap obstructs the pathway to equal opportunities.

Interns should not be wasting their time and efforts on companies willing to lowball them. Instead, they should feel valued and be compensated for their hard work. Companies willing to ask students to volunteer their time in exchange for a competent future are ignorant, unjust, and unethical.

This story was originally published on Westwood Horizon on October 20, 2021.