By David Z. Morris
July 8, 2018

Unpaid internships are intended to provide valuable experience and contacts to young workers, while lowering costs and risks to organizations. But are they fair?

Clashing armies of Twitter users have been fiercely debating the question in recent days. One side of the argument has emphasized that sacrifice can lead to success, and the other pointing out that not everyone even has the option to work without pay. The debate coalesced around Thursday tweets from a podcast host and vlogger known professionally as Adam22. Adam22 produces content focused largely on rappers with young fanbases, likely making the ensuing debate particularly relevant to many of his more than 400,000 followers.

According to the Guardian, about half of the 1.5 million internships available in America each year were unpaid as of 2016. Unpaid internships are also fairly common internationally. Some agreed that taking unpaid internships could be an important path to success for the truly committed.

But far more users argued out that for those without external support, taking even a beneficial unpaid position is effectively impossible.

Further, some pointed out that the external support that allows some to take an unpaid internship is far less likely to be available to marginalized groups. That includes people of color, who generally have less family wealth to draw on; and LGBTQ people, who are more likely to have frayed familial or social connections because of homophobia.

So, even if an unpaid internship is useful for an individual, many see the system as a whole as putting up barriers to the underprivileged.

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The debate is made more timely by a recent Labor Department change to the legal status of unpaid internships. To be legal, an unpaid internship must benefit the intern more than the company hiring them, as determined by seven factors. Those criteria include training that is “similar to that which would be given in an educational environment,” and that an unpaid intern not displace paid employees.

The new standard makes hiring unpaid interns easier by removing a previous rule that interns could provide no “immediate advantage” to the company. But the new rules may also improve the educational quality of unpaid internships, if the standard of school-like education is enforced. The rule change was triggered in large part by a major lawsuit against Fox Searchlight that hinged on its failure to train interns, and a 2010 survey found that most top corporate internships had “no explicit training component.”

Many Twitter users shared anecdotes of exploitation by companies who just wanted free labor.

Those experiences highlight a flaw in the premise of the entire debate: unpaid internships may not actually help get your career started at all. A three-year survey of graduating college students conducted in 2013 found that students who had taken paid internships were nearly twice as likely to receive a full-time job offer as those who had taken unpaid internships. Unpaid interns had almost no statistical advantage over students who had no internships at all.

The survey also found that students who had taken an unpaid internship were actually paid less on average in their first full-time job than those who had taken no internship at all.

The clearest lessons from the Twitter debate involve how unpaid internships are perceived. Companies should be aware that many smart candidates are likely to be highly skeptical of unpaid internships. Though the practice is somewhat more accepted in certain sectors, including fashion, journalism, and nonprofits, the positions may be genuinely inaccessible to some talented candidates, which could contribute to America’s decreased economic mobility.

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