November 28, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 38°F


Commentary: Unpaid internships enable white privilege

For most students, having an internship is not required to graduate. However, college graduates are entering an increasingly competitive job market. Especially in the field of communications, employers are looking for two to three years of experience for an entry-level position. As a result, pressure is put on students to acquire an internship while still in college to stand out to employers.

It is no secret that companies are more likely to hire someone with experience working in their industry over someone who only has grocery store jobs or camp counselor experience on their resume. According to a research report by Zippia, in the first few years after graduation, former interns are 15% less likely to be unemployed and earn 6% more than students who did not intern. This statistically puts those who have completed internships ahead of those who have not. In this sense, internships have no longer become optional. They have become an essential factor in finding a job following graduation.

Despite this truth, many internships available to students are unpaid. The competition for unpaid internships is already high, and the competition for paid internships is even higher. Many students are considered fortunate if they are able to secure a paid internship position. What many people fail to realize is that having an unpaid internship is backed by privilege. Unpaid internships can range from 10 to 40 hours per week. Lower-income individuals cannot afford to dedicate that amount of time and not get compensated for their work. 

Whether it be to support their families, pay rent or save for the insane amount of student loan debt they will have after college, many students need to work a paid job on the side to financially support themselves. This results in even less time available to dedicate free labor to a company. Additionally, many summer internships require relocation. The students who can afford to pay rent out of pocket for an internship and, in return, receive not a single dollar from the company are likely the students who are fortunate enough to receive financial support from parents or family members. 

This disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Our society’s history of systemic racism has made it difficult for BIPOC to move up the financial and corporate ladders. The white privilege hidden in unpaid internships is yet another barrier. Too many companies praise themselves on diversity initiatives despite the fact that in 2019, a Zippia study reported that 58.55% of interns were white, 17.9% were Hispanic or Latino, and 10.4% were Black or African American. Due to these disparities, many companies are making efforts to hire more BIPOC students for internships, but by still only offering unpaid internships, they are creating a barrier for a whole group of BIPOC students with lower incomes who can’t even consider applying to these positions. 

Companies fail to notice that the students they are hiring often are already privileged enough to be unpaid interns. Thus, the privileged students continue to take advantage of these opportunities and the others continue to fall further behind. As a white student who has had unpaid internships, I recognize that I have benefited from this system.

Internships turn into full-time jobs, and these are the people who will eventually work their way up to becoming the next CEOs and presidents. If we want more diversity in corporate leadership, it starts from the bottom with the interns. Unpaid internships reinforce the cycle of white supremacy in the professional space. It is the responsibility of companies to offer fair internship opportunities for all students, regardless of financial capabilities and race, and this begins with a paycheck.