Why do I have to pay to work for you?

It’s application season for students across America. Parents of high school students are preparing to reach deep into their pockets to pay for hefty tuition bills. They might expect this to be the last major investment they make before their children are out the door for good. But they might be wrong. In today’s economic environment, even work experience is a commodity.

For example: One father bid $30,200 on an internship at GQ for his son.

During college, advisers stress the importance of internships.  There are two types: paid and unpaid. Because of the economy, it is not so surprising that internships are usually unpaid, considering how many businesses can barely even afford to pay the salaries of their full-time staffers. Employers insist that if the internship is indeed an unpaid position, students must get class credit through their university. The catch: Registering for a class, especially at an expensive, private university, can cost thousands of dollars. At USC, a normal internship would cost roughly $2,000. As a result, students — or, I should say, the students who are able to — are shelling out thousands for the opportunity to use internships as a resume booster.

Oftentimes, whether a student applies for an internship boils down to whether he or she can afford it. What I see here is a division — a class divide —between who can and cannot get internships. In the next few years, we can expect to see that the people with jobs are the ones who were able to pay to get their foot in the door. This system is eradicating colleges’ need-blind policies. Even if a financially disadvantaged student is able to get into Harvard or Stanford, or any other elite university based solely on his merits, he will be at a disadvantage getting an internship unless he can find a way to fund it.

And because jobs are so scarce, it’s especially important now that students have previous work experience to put on their resumes to have a competitive edge. Internships can determine future employment, which means it’s the affluent students who have an advantage in the working world.

Talent can still emerge victorious when it comes to paid internships. For obvious reasons, these are most sought out by students. Here, businesses will at least offer a stipend to help with the cost of housing for the duration of the internship. These types, however, are more hard to come by, and especially competitive.  The Los Angeles Times recruiter said recently that he insists upon paying interns. The downside to this is that it limits the amount of interns he can hire. Because of this, he can only offer internships in the summer instead of yearlong.

Some companies that once paid their interns are now cutting back. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contact wrote that they no longer pay their interns.

Because unpaid internships are most common, our current internship system primarily supports a class divide.

Can’t these businesses get creative and be flexible in their definition of “compensation”? Or, what about the spirit of voluntarism? Why can’t someone choose to be a “volunteer” and forgo the title of “intern”? People can spend hours volunteering and not get compensation.

Students who want an internship but can’t afford it are forced to think of ways to circumvent the system. Some students get their class credit at a community college because the classes are cheaper. If you’re like me, you hope your employer forgets all about it. That worked the first time around, because the senator’s office had more to worry about, like saving the United States from economic ruin and what flavor fro-yo to get.

This year, I may not be so lucky. One internship program at USC sounded fantastic … until I heard how much it cost. Immediately I was deterred from applying. The program matches students with companies in New York for the summer and costs $6,800 — not including airfare, food or the commute to the internship site every day. I don’t know what the exact breakdown was, but $2,000 accounted for the cost of a 2-unit class, and I’m assuming about $2,000 for housing. The rest, I’m not sure. Also — financial aid does not apply.

I’m sure some parents are more than willing to pay for their child to have the internship opportunity. After all, parents pay for private schools, private tutors and private college counselors to put their children ahead in the college admissions game. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong. They want the best for their kids, and it’s unfortunate that paying exorbitant fees is what it takes to get the best for them.

I have hope that merit still means something regardless of how much you can pay. I hope that one day there will be a more efficient internship system that realizes not every student can pay thousands of dollars to learn valuable work skills.

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1 Comment

Filed under The Public Square

One response to “Why do I have to pay to work for you?

  1. David

    You make a very good point. Unfortunately the labor laws that are supposed to protect people really are hurting people. Especially the students from poorer families who are already worried about to many student loans. I don’t think it is abusive for a company to not pay someone who has no experience or skills. That person is getting the invaluable opportunity to develop skills. I don’t think the labor laws should forbid this.

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