For many college students, an unpaid internship is considered a rite of passage. Critics call them exploitative, and have even argued for them to be banned outright.
The paradox of getting an unpaid internship is that while it’s seen as necessary in order to build networking opportunities that will help secure a full-time, paying job, many unpaid internships are only feasible for students who are independently wealthy and have the privilege of not having to worry about paying bills while working for free. Wealthy corporations, and even U.S. senators, rely on unpaid internships to do work typically performed by full-time, paid employees.
However, this reliance on free labor is unfair to working-class students who have to resort to extreme measures to meet their monthly financial obligations. Former Congressional intern Dillon Cory described the difficulty he faced in accepting an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill as a working-class college student in a 2012 article for Mic.com.
“The greatest problem that arises from unpaid internships is the barrier they place in front of economically disadvantaged students who simply can’t afford to take them,” Cory wrote. “With many of the most coveted internships in pricey locations like New York City and D.C., many students can’t afford the high cost of living associated with these cities.”
In a 2012 New York Times column, Raphael Pope-Sussman described unpaid internships as exploitative, and called for them to be abolished, saying “not even child coal miners worked for free.”
“This week, thousands of young people will work 40 hours (or more) answering phones, making coffee or doing data entry — without earning a cent. These unpaid interns receive no benefits, no legal protection against harassment or discrimination, and no job security. They generate an enormous amount of value for their employers, and yet they are paid nothing. That is the definition of exploitation.”
Despite all of this, a Reddit post last week by user /u/Okmanl encouraged students everywhere to apply for unpaid internship opportunities everywhere — not for the standard reasons like accumulating experience and building networks, but for a different reason altogether.
“You can use them to practice your interview[ing] skills. If you get an offer just tell them that you can’t work for them because you got accepted for a paid internship,” /u/Okmanl wrote. “Not only do you get back at exploitive companies by wasting their time, but you will also be able to practice what you’re going to say when interviewing at a real company.”
This argument makes applying for (but not accepting) unpaid internships incredibly valuable for college students. The website Undercover Recruiter wrote in 2017 that in most cases, roughly one-third of employers know within the first 90 seconds of a job interview whether or not they’ll hire an applicant. The valuable experience to be had isn’t from actually working an unpaid internship — as Pope-Sussman wrote, most on-the-job “experience” from internships involves mindless menial labor — but from acquiring valuable experience in interviewing for the job you really want.
A side benefit of doing as /u/Okmanl suggested is not only that students will get valuable interviewing experience, but that employers will hopefully learn that by losing enough ideal candidates to paid internships, they’ll start paying their interns, too.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.