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The Daily Tar Heel

Unpaid internships do more harm than good

I’ve had a bone to pick with businesses that offer unpaid and not-for-credit internships for some time now.

So you can imagine my dismay upon reading a recent New York Times article preaching the value of such positions and how companies pressed for cash are increasingly relying on interns to do work for free.

The unpaid internship is one of the biggest swindles out there for college students today.

The promise of a “one-of-a-kind experience” is often left unfulfilled. Menial office tasks and the occasional chat with an executive often constitute an entire summer. In the end, students usually receive a letter of recommendation from a lower-level supervisor. It’s hardly worth a summer of volunteering, in my opinion.

More importantly, however, these positions perpetuate a cycle of socioeconomic discrimination.

While many employers deem internships a prerequisite for a salaried position, many students — especially those paying off student loans or funding their own education — can’t afford to work for free.

And often, landing another job on top of a full-time unpaid internship isn’t an option. Thus, employers are in effect denying these hardworking and often exceptionally qualified individuals who simply don’t have a means to fund such a job.

The problem of unpaid internships speaks more to the companies that participate than to the interns themselves.

I know firsthand the difficulties associated with unpaid internships. When I could no longer afford travel expenses to drive back and forth from Raleigh twice a week, I approached my employer.

Fortunately, my boss made the internship cost neutral by covering all of my travel costs.

But others are not so lucky.

A good example of this is the internship program with the U.S. Congress. Only a handful of offices fairly compensate their interns.

However, the vast majority of Congressional offices expect students to move across the country, live in an area where the cost of living is much higher and work full-time for free.

On top of that, many of the opportunities are not legitimate experiences in government.

Giving Capitol tours and sealing envelopes for eight hours a day doesn’t really constitute what it’s really like to work on the Hill.

There are a few business that really do offer great work experience for their unpaid interns.

The chance to shadow executives, work on crucial projects or the opportunity to have work published can really pay off in the long run, especially if the duration of the internship was part of a trial run before a permanent position.

But these companies will never get all of the qualified applicants they seek when their employees are not compensated fairly for their valuable work.

After all, when interns are treated like permanent employees and are expected to produce the same quality work product, they deserve fair compensation.

It’s unfair and exploitative for companies to rely heavily on unpaid college student interns. Clearly, something is amiss when McDonald’s pays its lowest-level employees more to flip burgers than a business pays an intern to produce valuable work product.

So when applying for internships this summer, I urge students to avoid selling themselves short by taking a job that pays less than they’re worth.

And don’t let anyone fool you — your work is valuable. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have hired you in the first place.


Meredith Engelen is a senior journalism and political science major from Minneapolis, MNYou can contact her at

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