Opinion | Columns

Unpaid internships ineffectual, even with credit

Like many other non-native New Yorkers, before arriving at Columbia I knew every stereotype about the city like the back of my hand. I’d binge-watched Sex and the City and Seinfeld, and I’d mapped out Fifth Avenue and the Upper West Side from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and You’ve Got Mail, respectively.

But as I planned out my college life, one of the more pervasive stereotypes was the frazzled fellow Midwesterner Andy Sachs of The Devil Wears Prada, getting devoured by Miranda Priestly, the high priestess of the fashion industry. I now realize that the film was a lie, but not for the reason you might think. Though Andy was fetching coffees and lunches, running frantically around on fruitless errands, there’s one key difference between Andy’s nightmare and the real life one: For all the shit she went through, she got paid.

The Andys of New York are no longer entry-level employees: They’re interns. And like her, we’re fed the same line: “People would kill to be here.”

Let’s get one thing straight: There’s nothing wrong with interning. What is wrong—not to mention unlawful—are unpaid internships.

Last week, Columbia Student Advising announced that Columbia College would no longer be giving registration credit to serve as academic credit for unpaid internships. This decision is not without precedent: Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania have elected not to provide academic credit for internships. But Columbia students do have a right to feel nervous about their prospects of getting an internship without the option for academic credit. Of the over 1,000 internships currently listed on LionSHARE, only 513 are paid positions—and that’s before sorting for class year, major, or industry. Though the new policy does better align Columbia with national and state labor laws, it feels like playing fair in an unfair fight.

[Related: How important are internships to the Columbia experience?]

But as has been argued on these pages before, the fact remains that the intern game is inequitable, and this effort is simply another attempt to try leveling the playing field. Many students can’t afford to work without pay—that doesn’t make them lazy millennials.

But even for the privileged subset who have parents able and willing to subsidize an unpaid internship, it’s about time to take a long, hard look at what any student—regardless of socioeconomic background—can get out of an unpaid internship. A job? The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 63.1 percent of students who’d had a paid internship received at least one job offer upon graduation, whereas only 37 percent of unpaid interns could say the same. What’s more, an unpaid internship gave students only a 1.8 percent bump in receiving job offers compared to students who hadn’t ever interned. To add insult to injury, the study found that unpaid interns who did find full-time jobs were offered less money than those without any internship experience.

So the question remains: What does an unpaid internship get you, if not a job? In my four years at Columbia, I’ve had five internships: two unpaid, three paid. Perhaps other unpaid interns are doing valuable work. I certainly wasn’t. At my first unpaid internship, I walked the CEO’s dogs, got his lunch, and picked up dry cleaning. Once, I nearly got fired for buying the wrong brand of yogurt. In short, I was an errand girl.

There are certainly worse experiences that a young person can undergo. But as David Carr argued in November in the New York Times, “In a country full of young people who have been burdened with enormous student loans and uncertain prospects, internships in Manhattan are very tiny in the scheme of things, but telling in terms of the business itself.”

We are voluntarily allowing companies not to value us or our work. If the company had been required to pay me, would they have treated me differently? The easy answer is yes. Employment, at its core, is simple: You render a service, you receive compensation. Companies that pay their interns are engaging in that process, and thus have more incentive to give meaningful assignments and take interest in interns’ professional development. We are an investment: They are building our skills with the hope that it will benefit them in the long run. It’s not surprising, then, that a study conducted by the recruitment consulting firm Intern Bridge showed that paid interns are twice as likely to receive job offers at the conclusion of their internships. 

Companies that opt for unpaid interns, on the other hand, have nothing at stake: When interns leave, they simply get another crop to come through the door, with no money lost. Unpaid interns are not considered actual workers or employees, not even subject to minimum wage laws or eligible for workplace sexual harassment protection. And if a company has an excuse not to treat us like legitimate employees, can we expect otherwise? 

Sadly, the influx of unpaid labor alters the entry-level job market, replacing and eliminating previously paid positions. And with unemployment for 20- to 24-year-olds still at 12.9 percent, it’s hard to blame recent graduates who take what they can get. 

Eliminating our ability to accept unpaid internships certainly does not stop companies from offering them. But if an unpaid internship doesn’t enhance our job prospects or build vocational skills, we have to wonder why it’s worth having to begin with.

Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life’s a Mitch runs alternate Fridays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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Anonymous posted on

Unpaid internships are unlawful if they provide economic benefit to the employer that other paid personnel also do. Anything where tasks have already been completed or non-value added makes internship legal. For example, fetching coffee makes an internship unlawful because it makes the workers drinking the coffee more productive than fetching it, but doing design work and learning the systems of working where the employer is merely just seeing if you learned anything makes it legal.

Academic credit is a funny business. Students pay for academic credit to do an internship? It's like paying my employer to work for them.

Anonymous posted on

Great article, Abby! The only bone I have to pick is with this line: "Eliminating our ability to accept unpaid internships certainly does not stop companies from offering them." Students can still accept unpaid internships. The only difference now is that Columbia won't make a transcript notation about this. But the transcript notation itself was never actual credit in that it didn't count toward any degree requirements. Unpaid internships are still legitimate for employers to offer and students to accept if the employers follow the strict federal guidelines for offering them.

Anonymous posted on

I think the reason she qualified this as "eliminating our ability to accept unpaid internships" is because many companies will not "hire" (funny word to use) unpaid interns if said interns cannot receive academic credit for these internships. In the past, Columbia students have been able to receive academic credit for such internships (useless R credit, as you mentioned, but "credit" nonetheless); now, we will not be able to receive any credit, whether useful or useless.

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