The end of the spring semester marks not only the end of long assignments, exams, and a flurry of campus activity, but also the culmination of the excruciating search for the perfect summer internship. Whether prodded by our parents or spurred on by a need to do something productive during our free time, we scour internship websites and wrack our brains for possible contacts. In short, we stress because we come face to face with a huge problem: most internships are unpaid. Many of us need to earn at least some money over the summer. Is that great internship worth the diet of wheat thins and cold pizza during the fall semester, or is it better to accumulate tips by scooping ice cream at the local Cold Stone Creamery in return for the possibility of early morning chai charger runs?
A great internship can lead to future opportunities in a field, and for the lucky ones, even a job. However, one has to ask whether it is fair for employers to advertise for unpaid interns knowing full well that they can expect free labor from a horde of starry-eyed students. Newspapers such as The New York Times have noted that due to high unemployment rates, many recent college graduates are working as unpaid interns in the hope that they will find jobs. You don’t need to read “Freakonomics” to know that an army of recent college graduates working for free further maintains and adds to the rate of unemployment and doesn’t stimulate the economy. Competition among overqualified candidates is inordinately high for even the most laborious of unpaid internships, not to mention full-time paying jobs. How are we supposed to maintain a competitive economy if the children, on whose shoulders the nation’s future rests, battle each other for the chance to work for free?
Ironically, this spring break I had the opportunity to work as an internships coordinator. From the employer’s perspective, it makes sense to offer some sort of incentive to applicants, for otherwise qualified candidates may reject the internship in favor of something more lucrative. Frequently, employers will offer a small stipend, usually between $500 and $1,000, which may cover basic costs with some pocket change left over for those who seek internships outside their hometowns. Employers typically search for a range of potential interns, and applicants may hail from beyond the immediate area. It’s impractical for a student from Colorado, for example, to work as an intern in New York if ze doesn’t have access to housing.
The discussion of stipends and pay rates brings up an interesting point: why do we place such an emphasis on getting paid for internships? It’s important to recognize the merit of volunteer service. I for one would advocate further student involvement in local communities in particular. Internships are supposed to prioritize gaining knowledge and experience. It’s sad that tough times have forced students to make a cynical choice between the greater good and personal profit. So many colleges and universities emphasize using knowledge to make the world a better place; how are we supposed to do that if we can’t expect to cover the costs of living while doing so? The nonprofit and civil service sectors are constantly losing funding, while working to improve communities and provide services for the underprivileged is more essential than ever. It’s no secret that teachers are some of the worst paid public servants, when so much of our future depends on the education of younger generations.
We can’t expect employers to set aside substantial funds for paid internships in this current economy; instead, I propose that employers create a benefit system and treat unpaid interns like civil servants. If they can’t offer us a salary in return for our labor, they can at least provide subsidized housing, food, and access to transportation and necessary health services, as well as serious inroads into their industry. Especially in the nonprofit and public sectors, which need more workers than ever, there should be a direct pathway from internships to paid positions to encourage students to offer themselves in the service of the nation and the world. This may seem a bit idealistic of me, but then again, I fortunately already have a summer job.
Alperstein a member of the class of 2014.