Unpaid vs. Paid Internships – Synopsis

by: Leigh Bauer and Britini Dunn

Our class deliberation was an informative discussion about the legality and lived experiences of unpaid interns. We opened with the question “Do you think unpaid internships should be illegal?” to which all 13 participants believed they should be illegal. When each participant discussed their internship experiences, many described them as the “worst experience of [their] life” and said they were “doing too much work to not be paid.” One participant even went so far as to say that unpaid internships are “slavery.” On the converse, some participants said they have positive experiences, saying they learned a lot and were okay with being unpaid because they loved the experience. But overall, many participants never look for or apply to unpaid internships. They feel there are little benefits beyond having the experience to put on a resume and making connections, though it’s unclear if those connections are valuable enough to be worth it.

Many residents believe that unpaid internships significantly contribute to creating a massive equity gap within professional development. One participant said that people who can afford to support themselves can afford to take more unpaid internships and build their resumes. The conversation then shifted to a discussion about job applications, with one participant believing that resumes create the equity gap because “a paper with accolades says nothing about someone’s character.” Cover letters were also a hot topic of conversation, with the general consensus being that cover letters are too much work for not enough payoff. Plus, many people might not have access to help with writing their resumes and cover letter, which puts them at a disadvantage.

Pace University prides itself on offering many unique opportunities to students, including a mass amount of internships through the website Handshake and their career services department. The department hosts resume workshops and allow students to meet one on one with professionals to create a working resume. In order to apply for internships through the University Handshake service, a student must get their resume approved by the department. 

Half of the students in the class expressed that Pace’s Career Services was a large part of their decision to go to the University. We asked University students what their experience has been with career services. 

The class responded in a positive light, with many students sharing the help they received from the career services department. Students expressed that they felt it was a privilege to go to a University with career services and felt the opportunity in itself was a privilege. Students agreed that the department is what students make of it– they have to seize the opportunities, reach out to the department and put in work to even be able to apply to internships. 

One student shared her experience with a career services employee, Matt Healy, stating: “He’s great and really taught me how to make a resume. The only other meeting with career services I have had have been to look on Handshake, which I feel like you have to do yourself, no one can do it for you.”


Leigh Bauer and Britini Dunn

Many internships are unpaid, leading to positions being filled by wealthier students that do not have tuition and bills to pay. While internships can offer valuable experience, this experience is limited to few. Companies often hire students for unpaid work and have been criticized for exploitation. Internships can be seen as ways for companies to get away with unpaid labor, which is why the Department of Labor tried to clamp down on unpaid internships in 2010 to no avail. Having an unpaid internship is a luxury many cannot afford, yet it is still accepted and encouraged in society as an “experience.” The National Association of Colleges and Employers Center for Career Development reports that employers value unpaid internship experience and often prioritize students that have had those opportunities.

One organization looking to increase the quantity of paid internship programs nationwide is Pay Our Interns. The organization advocates for “equitable access to professional career paths through the implementation of paid internships countrywide.” According to the About Us page on their website, Pay Our Interns’ goal is to develop pathways for advancement for young professionals, create a more equitable workforce, and increase diverse leadership teams in companies nationwide. So far, the organization has worked with the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and several Senate offices to create their own paid internship programs. Most recently, the organization partnered with the brand Next of Us to create a $50,000 fund that unpaid college interns can apply to for financial assistance while pursuing unpaid or underpaid internships. Currently, the organization is working with the State of California to pass AB 2437, a bill that would fund relocation stipends for California Capital interns and service stipends for interns at district offices.

So, who’s to blame for the lack of paid internship programs in America? Are unpaid internships a means of exploitation? Or, do they allow for more internship opportunities to be available? Do unpaid internships perpetuate income inequality in the United States? How can the system change so paid internships are the norm?