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Too often, interns are forced to complete menial or unimportant tasks that don’t relate to the work experience they signed up to receive.

Internships are an opportunity for college students to obtain invaluable work experience in a given field. Oftentimes, businesses and universities collaborate through internships, enabling students to also earn college credit while working for the business. 

These opportunities can be enriching experiences. Yet, they don’t always live up to these ideals — especially when a lack of pay is involved.

There are two main types of internships: those that pay students and those that don’t. Considering the highly competitive nature of the job market, students are frequently desperate for any opportunity to develop a compelling resume. Knowing this, businesses and other organizations sometimes use students as free labor under the guise of work experience. These practices harm students and, ultimately, the businesses’ long-term goals. Therefore, businesses should aim to facilitate the growth of an intern through comprehensive training programs and by always compensating them for their work. 

Private for-profit businesses are legally permitted to not compensate interns for their work under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The internship guidelines set forth by this act establish six criteria that internship programs at businesses must meet in order to allow for unpaid interns. Those criteria include that the internship is similar to training given in an education environment, interns don’t displace regular employees and work under close supervision, the employer doesn’t receive an advantage from the intern and the intern is aware they won’t receive wages from the start of their internship, among others. 

Ultimately, this means the business that hosts interns must be doing so for the benefit of the intern — not themselves.

Internships stem from the tradition of apprenticeships, which finds its roots in ancient Egypt and Babylon, where craftsmen would train the next generation, per Britannica. This practice was even codified into law, according to Yale Law School, which can be found on the ancient carved tablets of the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest set of written laws enacted by Hammurabi, King of Babylon, in the 18th century B.C. 

Apprenticeships became prominent in the medieval era wherein young men would go to live with craftsmen, who were members of guilds, and learn their trade. In the early 20th century, students graduating from medical school were oftentimes unprepared to apply their theoretical knowledge in high-stakes situations. Therefore, a position similar to the modern internship was created to allow medical school graduates to shadow doctors, according to Business Insider. 

During the latter half of the 20th century, these positions spread to other fields, and universities became involved to streamline the process. These positions were known as cooperative education programs and later as internships. 

Unpaid internships were commonplace in the late 20th century, while paid ones were very rare. In the 21st century, however, approximately 60% of students participate in internships prior to their graduation, according to Chegg, and over 25% do multiple internships. Of those that do participate in internships, around 60% are paid. This increase in paid internships is largely due to a federal lawsuit filed by unpaid interns at Fox Searchlight Picture in 2011 against the company for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. The company forced its interns to complete tasks required of paid employees. The interns won the case and were given compensation. 

Cases of interns completing work on par with the work done by paid employees, or being forced to complete menial and seemingly unrelated tasks, happen more than they should. Considering this, some unpaid internships may cheat students out of time that could be spent earning money to pay for college tuition and rent. Some may provide little to no applicable training or connections that the student seeks.

Furthermore, not all students have the money to take time off from paid work to participate in an unpaid internship. Therefore, students who are supported by their families and are able to take on unpaid internships are seizing opportunities that are available to them at least partially because of their wealth and not necessarily their merit. Ultimately, many of these students secure desirable paid positions because of their experience and resume, perpetuating wealth inequality.

Laura Hickerson, JMU associate director for employer relations at the University Career Center,  said the state of internships is improving and  internship programs are becoming more streamlined. 

“There are so many companies looking for interns now,” Hickerson said. “We encourage them to pay students … because it’s better for the student, and it’s better all around.” 

Hickerson noted that exceptions do exist, such as in government agencies and nonprofit organizations that “just don’t have the funding.”

Hickerson acknowledged the change in the way companies view internships and how companies now compete for students as a result of that view change. 

“The goal for most companies with internship programs is to transition an intern into full-time positions, so if you intern for me and I give you low-level jobs, you’re not going to want to work for me,” Hickerson said. “It is kind of like a longer interview … I’ve trained and invested in you, and you have worked and learned about us.”

However, she also recognized many of the problems that linger during the processes of phasing out unpaid internships.

“It makes for a tough time. It’s a much better experience if a student can give themselves fully to their internship that’s paid,” Hickerson said. “One of the biggest problems with employers that offer unpaid internships is that they use college credit as a carrot to attract students, but they often don’t realize if you’re getting college credit, the student has to pay for that credit.”

Hickerson said she’s encouraged by the state of internship programs and the many ways the University Career Center at JMU has begun to address the persisting issues regarding unpaid internships. More specifically, Hickerson mentioned the unpaid internship scholarship program that the University Career Center has provided to supplement the cost of living for students who take on unpaid internships. She started it partially to alleviate the financial pressure students felt. 

Internships offer valuable experience and connections when done right — that is, when they’re paid and provide real training. Conversely, unpaid internships can be used as a tool for the wealthy to perpetuate wealth inequality and for businesses to exploit labor for their benefit. Students looking to build their resume should avoid unpaid internships for their own sake, and for those who are less fortunate. 

 Evan Weaver is a sophomore English major. Contact Evan at weavereh@dukes.jmu.edu. For more editorials regarding the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the opinion desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Opinion.