Unpaid internships are often considered a crucial entry point for starting one's career, especially in the fields of journalism and politics. To get a paying job, you need experience–but to get experience, you'll need to have had a job. This impossible situation is easily remedied by unpaid internships, which provide opportunities for job seekers at no cost to the organization. However, unpaid internships are not the cure-all that they may appear to be.
For students who need to work and earn money to support themselves, an unpaid internship may be out of the question. However, those working-class students who can't afford to take on an unpaid internship are usually the ones who would most benefit from the networking and experience.
It's important to recognize that unpaid internships can be beneficial for many students in helping them to kickstart their careers, but they are also enabling privilege to shape key fields like journalism and politics which would benefit from diverse voices.
On the Working-Class Studies blog, Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco noted that if fewer working-class and minority students enter a profession it means that there will be fewer people within that profession attuned to the complex issues that face working-class and minority people–and this is a huge problem. In the journalism field, for example, it means fewer stories about the issues working-class and minority populations face. In the medical field, it could mean fewer people who understand the specific medical issues associated with minorities and poverty. It is a significant problem in any field or profession.
I'm not asking that all companies pay all of their interns. But I am suggesting that companies recognize the many benefits that are associated with paying interns. Paid interns also tend to be happier and more productive. Paying interns could help to close the wealth gap, and studies have shown that paid interns are significantly more likely to receive job offers than unpaid interns and paid interns are usually offered more money for these jobs.
And if companies are hesitant or unable to pay their interns, then I suggest that they work on being more equitable with the way that they offer these opportunities. Internships should be about what you know, not who you know, and a student who is more well connected should not receive preferential treatment in the hiring process.
Additionally, unpaid internships should not waste a student' time. An unpaid internship should be worth a working-class student giving up an opportunity to make money that could relieve their financial situation. If the internship only has them doing menial tasks that don't give them experience or skills in their field, then that internship is a waste of time. Companies that hire unpaid interns have a responsibility to provide a meaningful job experience.
In order for journalism, medicine, politics, and other fields to become more representative of the people that they serve, it's vital that internship opportunities are made accessible to those who can't afford to work for free.