Unpaid Internships Are Making Our Race and Class Divides Deeper

'No one is denying that the main purpose of education is to get experience. It is. But people need a paycheck to pay for bills while they're getting that experience.'

It's the job posting of every young student's dreams. "Help wanted. Gain critical work experience in an exclusive field. Your future starts now!"

But... just one small caveat buried in the fine print: There's no pay.

The ethics of paid versus unpaid internships reignited when an NFL Network reporter caused a firestorm online after posting a listing about an unpaid position. What Jane Slater apparently thought was a harmless post turned out to be anything but innocuous.

"Broadcast journalism students: exciting internship opportunity for you. Can you set up well lit zoom/Skype calls, record, edit them and want access to the league’s top draft prospects? It’s not with @BobbyBeltTX and I but it is in the DFW area. Unpaid. Great experience. Inbox me,” Slater wrote.

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The backlash was swift. Slater dug in her heels, detailing her prior work experience and history of unpaid internships early in her career. And although some 43% of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid with many employers seeing these temp jobs as a "rite of passage," many across social media spoke to the inequity of the concept.

"The problem with unpaid internships is only rich people can do them," wrote one Twitter user. "If you need to make a living you can't use that "great opportunity" to get experience or advance. That is why they are bulls---."

Yet another wrote, "The problem with unpaid internships, is that only people who can afford to not earn an income for an extended period, could afford to apply. So, the pool of applicants is restricted by their economic circumstances. It's exclusionary."

But there were others who saw value in simply getting your foot in the door.

"Do you understand how much time and effort goes into teaching someone how to do something when they're on an internship," wrote one user. "You PAY people that have expertise or knowledge in something. I'm not paying somebody to teach them to do something. The internship is for you to learn!"

Not so, says Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder and executive director of Pay Our Interns. Vera's Washington D.C.-based group is a leading organization fighting for an increase in the amount of paid internships across all work sectors. The argument that interns should be happy to get their foot in the door just for experience simply doesn't hold up, he says.

"Experience doesn't pay the bills. An intern cannot go to the grocery store, go to the checkout line, and when the cashier says cash or credit you can't pay with experience," says Vera. "You can't go to your landlord and pay your rent with experience. That's the key thing here. No one is denying that the main purpose of education is to get experience. It is. But people need a paycheck to pay for bills while they're getting that experience."

The issue is not only the inherent unfairness of not paying for labor, says Vera, but also who those unpaid internships benefit, beyond the companies themselves. As many pointed out while responding to Slater's original post, many Black and brown students simply aren't coming from an economic circumstance where they can afford to work for free. That means those internships and the critical experience that comes with them are often going to more privileged, white students.

And when students of color are unable to find paid opportunities in the fields they want to work in, they choose different careers. As a result, the arts and media are overwhelmingly white.

"If you already have someone mostly well-off and you have unpaid internships, their parents will pay for them to enter that internship. And once they in turn get hired they go up the ranks and the system keeps on reproducing," Vera says. "Those things happen and people will take care of their own. It's not to say that you don't have a couple of Black or Latino or Native American people in the mix. But it's not enough really to change things."