February 28, 2024

As college students, many of us have a similar ultimate goal in mind: to get a good job after graduation. To accomplish this, we attend class. We write papers. We pore over textbooks and assignments. We take tests. Then, at some point — for many of us, around junior or senior year — we begin to search for one crucial element that school cannot provide: work experience.

In the modern competitive job market, significant work experience is a must, even for entry-level positions. So begins the scramble to snag an internship before graduation.

The advantage of having an internship on your resume is undeniable. After graduation, those who have had internships are 15% less likely to remain unemployed, according to Zippia. Internships also often lead to job opportunities, with 70% of interns hired at the company at which they interned, according to Zippia. Internships often offer graduates that extra edge over other candidates vying for a job position, making them invaluable in today’s job culture. While internships act as resume-builders for students, a significant number of internships — 39.2% based on Zippia’s statistics — are unpaid.

Unpaid internships are the golden ticket for many companies, providing them with a way to “hire” many college students under the guise of providing essential work experience for students while avoiding having to budget money for the extra labor. However, regardless of the supposed benefits of internships, any advantages gleaned do not justify the lack of pay for student interns.

Millions of students attend colleges across the U.S., but internship positions are limited, forcing many students desperate for these opportunities to settle for unpaid internships. While some internships offer college credit, this compromise, nor the promise of professional benefits, matches the value of cold, hard cash in college students’ pockets.

While it may sound shallow, money is important. As much as we like to deny it, studies have repeatedly displayed that, at least to a certain point, money brings people happiness and control over their lives and avoids detrimental ramifications of financial stress. This financial stability is perhaps most desperately needed among college students coping with ever increasing tuition expenses and a dangerously high inflation rate.

On average in the U.S., college students spend about $200 each month on expenses, according to Save My Cent. This estimate does not include room and board, school supplies and books, transportation and tuition — and this figure is likely higher in states such as California with above-average costs of living. Many students rely on paid positions to fund unavoidable living expenses, leaving them in the sticky situation of being unable to afford settling for an unpaid internship.

These students are left with a choice: forfeit the resume-building work experience, or find a way to juggle an unpaid internship, a packed course load and a job to make up for the lack of pay at the internship. The first option seems grim, forcing many to make mental and physical health sacrifices to make the latter option work.

Unpaid internships at their simplest level are an exchange of free labor for a perceived, non-concrete benefit. They offer no visible compensation, so why are unpaid internships legal in the first place? The answer lies in legislation.

Unfortunately, while the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires for-profit companies to provide monetary compensation for employees, interns may not qualify as employees under the law, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In the past, the courts have analyzed intern compensation requirements in the context of the FLSA based on a seven-factor test. This test is meant to ensure that there is an understanding between interns and a company regarding the absence of compensation and that an internship program is educational in nature and thus is benefitting the intern. However, this test — dubbed the “primary beneficiary test” — is loosely defined and largely subjective, offering a flimsy foundation for any legal arguments against unpaid internships. This lack of firm guidelines makes it wildly easy for companies to take on interns for unpaid positions without challenge, perpetuating this out-of-control phenomenon.

In modern society, we have generally looked down upon labor without fair pay. However, we have provided companies with loopholes, and college students have had to suffer the consequences. As students, we should not perpetuate this generally accepted unfair treatment. We cannot continue to settle for no pay for valuable work. Like all employees, we deserve to be paid for our time and effort. The promise of “work experience” and a flimsy letter of recommendation is no longer enough. Let’s recognize our value and take back our power.

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