During the summer before my senior year of college, I had an unpaid internship at a television station in Chicago. I lived with my parents, who fed me and covered the costs of my daily train ride into the city. I didn’t need to make money over the summer to support myself during the school year, so the arrangement worked for me.
My then-boyfriend-now-husband also had an internship that summer. He worked as an advertising rep for a newspaper not in his home town, so he had to rent an apartment and cover all of his own expenses. Fortunately, that internship paid. An unpaid internship would not have been an option for him.
And it’s not an option for many students. We’ve heard a lot lately about the enormous rise in student debt – approximately 37 million students currently hold debt, averaging $27,500 per person and totaling more than $1.1 trillion. The unpaid internship system forces many students to increase their debt so they can get the experiences they need to land a job.
Until recently, students and college advisors accepted the system as a necessary evil. Then, in 2011, two interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures sued the company, saying they essentially did the same work as entry-level employees – taking lunch orders, answering phones, assembling office furniture – and the studio didn’t “foster an educational environment” as required by law. In June, the interns won their case, prompting a series of lawsuits against other companies.
Campaign for America’s Future launched a petition on Moveon.org calling for the White House to start paying its interns. Meanwhile, the Fair Pay Campaign is calling for an end to the unpaid internship system entirely. As the campaign’s co-founder Mikey Franklin told USA Today, “People whose parents are wealthy can work hard to get ahead, but people who don’t have connections get screwed.”
You can read the pro and con arguments regarding unpaid internships on the New York Times’ Room for Debate page.