Editorial: The hidden exclusivity of internships


The Editorial Board

There are a few concepts that are inherently Northeastern-esque. Entrepreneurial spirit. Innovation. Robot-proof. And, above all, co-op. It is not only one of the defining characteristics of Northeastern University, but also what most of us say when people ask why we chose Northeastern.

When we think of co-op, we often associate it with the long-awaited pleasure of making money in our career fields. This is often the case. Northeastern strongly encourages potential employers to pay students an hourly wage, but acknowledges that some companies are unable to. For students who cannot afford to take unpaid co-ops, Northeastern offers a limited number of work-study funding opportunities and grants.

While Northeastern is relatively adept at leveling the playing field for students of all social classes when it comes to co-op opportunities, there are many internship programs out there that are not as helpful. In 2014, 46.5 percent of internships were unpaid. There is a widespread assumption that students are willing to work for free, simply because they are inexperienced. Young interns are often told that they should be “thankful for the experience.”

Students should expect to begin their career in entry-level positions, but employers need to remember who they are excluding by not offering payment. Those unable to take unpaid positions are often low-income students.

The poverty rate for college students living off-campus and not living with relatives is 51.8 percent. Without outside funding, unpaid positions are virtually impossible for these students to take. While interns can work part-time jobs on the side, this can negatively impact their productivity at their professional job. Even with another job, it can be hard for students to scrape together adequate funds given that cities with a high concentration of internships, such as New York City, Los Angeles and, yes, Boston, also have an exceptionally high cost of living.

We are taught that if we work hard, we will be able to climb the corporate ladder, but being unable to accept unpaid work can render this impossible for some. The unpaid internship system is biased toward students who can afford to take such positions. There may be plenty of students who could do the job just as well, if not better, than those who are hired, yet they do not even have the privilege of applying.

Minority groups make up a disproportionate amount of those below the poverty line. By excluding low-income students from certain internships, employers are also excluding more minority students. In a day and age where many companies are or should be focused on creating a diverse staff, they must remember that their choice to not pay interns affects their ability to implement a diverse workforce. If companies want to diversify their staff in the long term, both racially and socially, they need to look at the bigger picture and start offering paid internships.

Interns that are going to be treated like employees deserve to be paid like employees. A tired college student working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. should not have to dash off to a part-time job simply to pay their rent.  

Companies need to think long and hard about the implications of only offering unpaid internships and must consider that paying students will likely be more rewarding in the long run for both employers and employees.