National Intern Day

The Disheartening Design of Unpaid Internships 

As college students find themselves at the starting line of their fall semester, many are assessing their summer earnings and taking a look at the upcoming expenses. When it comes to finding work over the summer, internships remain the “creme de la creme” of work experience, as students are eager to gain further knowledge in their intended field. In 1992, approximately 17% of college students held internship positions. By 2017 the number of college students with internships was 62%. July 29th of this year marks National Intern Day, and there is no better time to assess the corrupted structure of these coveted positions. 

The one defining aspect of internships remains whether or not they are paid. Many colleges and universities across the country encourage their students to use the career website Handshake, which updates them on the wide range of available internships and employment opportunities. This fall, I will be a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. When I looked for summer internships in all fields this past April, there were 375 internship positions within 25 miles of Pittsburgh waiting to be filled. Upon filtering out unpaid positions, over one-third of the opportunities were removed from the list. For students who cannot afford to work without pay, unpaid internships extend an unfair advantage for financially privileged college students. 

national intern day

Gender Based Issues in Internships 

The issue with unpaid internships is that they not only inhibit students from gaining these positions based on class, but also on the basis of sex. Male-dominated fields, such as STEM careers, have a higher rate of paying their interns than female-dominated positions in the liberal arts. Binghamton University has recently found that women are 34% less likely than men to be paid during their time as an intern.

As a female liberal arts student majoring in Public and Professional Writing, while conducting my search for relevant summer jobs, I was often greeted by the same roadblock “This is an unpaid position.” Many of these unpaid internships boast about the responsibilities I would have at their company, promising more than the routine tasks of coffee runs and filing documents. And yet, despite the substantial work these companies guarantee their applicants in the liberal arts, it’s apparently not enough to yield even a minimum wage unlike the male-dominated fields in STEM. 

Aside from the disparity of pay between male and female interns, there are other issues that must be carefully considered. In Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back, she remarks, “When you don’t get a wage, you are not an employee- and that means that protections against abuses on the job – against sexual harassment, for example, don’t apply either. Unpaid workers could thus be doubly or triply exploited.” 

Facing The Truth 

The pool of who can accept unpaid internships without worrying about opportunity costs is very narrow. As internships increase in popularity, they become the preferable type of experience that employers look for on resumes. Students who are wealthy enough to take these unpaid positions gain experience relative to their field of study and build connections, while other perfectly qualified students are forced to take low-paying jobs to cover the cost of living and tuition. It is by no means a choice they make but rather a harsh reality of the classist and sexist structure of unpaid internships. 

At first glance, it may appear as though it’s only interns who benefit from a paycheck, but the companies themselves will benefit from paying them as well. Agreeing to pay interns will create a larger pool of qualified candidates, and helps to avoid any potential lawsuits that could arise if there are violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

national intern day

What Can You Do To Help? 

Get Involved with Pay Our Interns! 

Pay Our Interns is a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. leading the charge to dismantle unpaid internships, and they want you to get involved. They offer numerous paid opportunities for students to apply for internships within their organization. The announcements of their available positions can be found on their website payourinterns.org, or on their Instagram @payourinterns

Share Your Story!

If you have held a position as an unpaid intern, share your story with Pay Our Interns or Live Your Dream. Sharing a personal account of your experience as an unpaid intern encourages others to do the same, and emboldens others to fight for change. 

Give What You Can! 

Live Your Dream accepts donations to help improve women and girl’s access to education, which would help them earn higher-paying jobs. Alongside accepting donations, Pay Our Interns is a registered company under the AmazonSmile program. This program allows Amazon customers to select Pay Our Interns as your organization of choice, allocating a portion of the cost of your purchases to be sent to the non-profit.


Caleigh Trauger is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Public and Professional Writing with a minor in Public Service. Alongside writing for LiveYourDream.org, Caleigh enjoys running, reading a bit of everything, and spending time with her friends and two younger siblings.

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