State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Unpaid Internships are Unethical and Wrong

I have always hated unpaid internships and have never permitted them in any organization I’ve managed or had influence in. Labor must always have dignity, and that requires payment of a decent wage. I am not against volunteerism; take a day or parts of many days and work in a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter or cleaning up a neighborhood park. That’s more than OK, that’s great. But organizations that have resources and ask people to work in real jobs for no money should be ashamed of themselves. Exchanging labor for “experience” on a resume is the very definition of exploitation. And of course, only rich kids need apply. Some people can’t afford to work for free because they need to pay rent or help feed their family.

To their credit, the Biden administration has recently figured out a way to provide pay for the prestigious White House Fellow program. As Juliana Kaplan recently wrote in Business Insider:

“For the first time ever, internships at the White House will be paid. On Thursday, the Senate passed a $1.5 trillion government funding bill, which includes $4.5 million to fund the White House and Executive Office internship program. The bill, which had bipartisan support, helped avert a government shutdown and includes billions in aid for Ukraine. President Joe Biden signed it on Friday.”

I am happy to see that $4.5 million could be found in the $1.5 trillion budget. I understand that many organizations consider the resources invested in training new workers a form of compensation and that expecting organizations to pay interns will reduce the number of these “opportunities” made available. I understand that the ladder to professional success must begin somewhere. All I am saying is that every rung on that latter should be paid a living wage.

The gap between rich and poor in the United States grows wider and wider. A young person born to wealth can easily accept an unpaid internship. A young person who is not born to wealth may not be able to accept that internship and may miss a critical step on the ladder of professional success. It was shameful that a White House intern, working for the head of state and head of government with the most resources in the world, went unpaid until this week. The symbolic importance of the president’s critical leadership step here must be acknowledged. While long overdue, better late than never.

I am not speaking from direct personal experience here. I have never held an unpaid internship, even though my family did not need the money I made from my summer jobs during my school days. In my family, I was expected to work during the summer, and my very generous and tolerant extended family hired me into paid summer jobs, despite my lack of any obvious employable skills. I did what I was told and assumed that paid work was the normal order of things. I was not smart enough to know I should do something more prestigious for no pay. But I had many friends who could never even consider unpaid work. They really needed the part-time and summer work to survive. In college, I had a very close friend who was a full-time student on a “full scholarship” who still needed to work as a waitress at a local truck stop to make ends meet. I had other friends who took jobs in the college kitchen and mailroom. That was where I learned the importance of these part-time and summer paychecks. These were not internships, but part-time jobs. Research demonstrates that these part-time jobs for a paycheck are obstacles to engaging in pre-professional internships.

Moreover, research indicates that internship opportunities are an important determinant of professional success. According to Javier Rodriguez S., Zi Chen of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions:

“Internships are widely considered positive experiences. Across disciplines, studies suggest that taking part in an internship increases students’ chances at identifying a career path that’s appropriate for them, getting a job, and even receiving higher pay when they are hired. All of this because internships, arguably, expand students’ professional networks; allow them to experience, first-hand, what a job in a given industry looks like; apply their knowledge in the real world; and pick up skills and information, outside the classroom, that make them better-equipped, more desirable job candidates…Internships, however, are not available to everyone. Different types of barriers prevent students from participating in them. First, there are financial barriers. With considerable debt and the need to pay for college-related expenses, not every student can afford to take an unpaid job as an intern. Few can cover the costs of relocating and living in a different city to pursue an internship; and, many times, students are responsible for caring and providing for others (children, older relatives), which requires them to maintain paid employment while pursuing their college education. Those who can afford to do unpaid or underpaid work are the ones who have the means in the form of substantial support from family or other sources.”

In other words, unpaid internships reinforce obstacles to professional experience and provide yet another unfair advantage to the children of wealthy parents on the road to professional success. I recognize that such advantages will never disappear, and helping one’s child get ahead is part of being a parent — whether you are rich or poor. But that does not mean that large institutions like the government, major corporations and universities need to reinforce these disparities by permitting unpaid internships.

When I became executive director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, I ended the practice of unpaid internships. An organization with a budget of over $100 million a year could afford the costs of paid internships. In fact, we added to the number of students we hired. I’ve done the same thing as vice dean of Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. Let me be clear; this is not charity. These young people play a critical role in professional settings. Their brains, energy and enthusiasm are a healthy force in any organization. It also helps build community and provides professional training for the student intern, reinforcing our educational mission. Very often, interns can provide a healthy bridge between students and administrators. They can communicate how students perceive events and policies and help explain the decisions of university administrators to their colleagues in the student body. They informally add student voices to the decision-making process, augmenting formal channels of participation through student government.

I don’t mean to trivialize the horror of slavery, as clearly an unpaid intern is not owned by anyone or subject to the cruelty experienced by actual slaves. But unpaid internship labor is a modern form of oppression. I consider it unethical, and its institutionalization is deeply problematic. I’ve heard many explanations for these practices, particularly centered around the education and training offered. At Columbia, we offer academic credit for internships, further incentivizing and legitimizing these activities.

The Biden administration should be applauded for taking the important step in paying their own interns. They should take another step and provide funding for paid internships throughout the federal government and provide resources to state and local governments to do the same. Just as large corporations have demonstrated the ability to act responsibly by withdrawing from Russia, these companies should also be encouraged to pay their interns. Universities should do the same and only provide academic credit for paid internships. Internships can be valuable and important apprenticeship opportunities for students engaged in them. They should be encouraged, and they should be paid.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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2 years ago

Note: the White House Fellows program mentioned in the article has always been paid, as it’s for mid-career professionals. This program is different from the White House Interns, for whom this news applies.