Experience doesn’t pay the bills

Unpaid internships leave low-income students behind

Cailee Zeraat, Staff Writer

Many college students are asked, “What are you going to do in the future?” 

For most people at university, finding a job is an essential part of transitioning into a totally independent, adult life. However, with more and more young adults attending college, simply having a degree is not enough to set you apart from the crowd. A common way college students aim to boost their resume and gain relevant workplace experience is through internships. Often, internships are not only a helpful addition to a resume, but are often expected for even entry-level jobs. This expectation though almost guarantees unequal opportunities for low-income students who can’t afford to work unpaid, further widening the gap between social classes and making any sort of upward mobility extremely difficult. 

While there are insanely selective software engineering internships that pay considerably, I want to focus on the average internship experience for most college students. Unpaid internships seem to be increasingly common. Companies understand the necessity of having internship experience when applying for full-time jobs forces most students to work for free in exchange for a resume boost. And for internships and research positions that are paid, the wage is typically just above minimum wage. Unfortunately, most students who are low to middle-class simply cannot afford to work for free or for marginal amounts. Students who can afford to spend hours in the day performing free or underpaid labor come from already wealthy families who have the means to support them. Thus, low-income students entering the workforce are at an inherent disadvantage when their resumes are filled with part-time jobs, rather than relevant internships.

Internships are essential for students to improve their resumes and build a network in their desired field of study. However, when students who get internships are those who already have an advantage due to their financial status, it leaves low-income students further behind than they already are. Parental wealth is one of the biggest indicators of future financial growth. One of the ways to break the cycle of generational poverty is to get a high paying job. These high paying jobs, however, are usually closed off to those without previous field experience. Thus, the cycle becomes impossible to escape, leaving low-income students trapped and unable to climb the social ladder.

Furthermore, part-time jobs are common for many low-income students on college campuses. These jobs often pay better than most internships, but usually don’t provide any relevant experience. So while these jobs are necessary for low-income students to pay for groceries, rent and tuition, they aren’t as helpful as internships when it comes to boosting their resumes. From an employer’s perspective, a candidate with multiple summer internships looks a lot better than a student who spent their four years working 20 hours a week at Panera Bread. Although the latter student was just working to financially support themselves, the lack of experience in a relevant field doesn’t look great.

Unpaid or underpaid internships are a direct cause of low workplace diversity. As previously established, the students that are able to take these internships already come from a higher socioeconomic standing. Workplaces fill up with candidates who have previous experience, and those people are often rich and white. This only further perpetuates the wealth gap that exists between socioeconomic classes and marginalized groups. As a result, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 73% of unpaid interns were white. 

One way Case Western Reserve University and other colleges across the country are addressing this issue is by offering stipends to students who are participating in unpaid or underpaid internships. Last year, I participated in a micro-internship through the Baker-Nord Center’s Humanities@Work program. This internship was about three months long and took no more than 10 hours of work each week. While it was unpaid by the company I was working for, the Baker-Nord Center provided me with a $600 stipend each. Without that stipend, I definitely would not have applied for the internship. Many companies and employers would like to claim that the experience their internships provide are priceless, but time is money for low-income students. While the compensation I received was probably under minimum-wage based on the time I spent completing my project, the sentiment is there: No one should waste their time doing work for free.