I dropped out of college in 2010. It was a risky decision, but I decided that having a degree certifying that I liked to write wasn't worth the massive price tag. Of course I still wanted to write for a living, and a series of paid and unpaid internships was my way into the field. I happily took advantage of it.
But not everybody agrees. Following the recent district court ruling in New York against Fox Searchlight, critics are claiming that employers exploit interns by not paying them, and even prevent them from establishing themselves professionally. It's easy to accept such a complaint at face value, especially if you're a millennial trying to make your way in the working world. But as appealing as it seems, the recent criticism of unpaid internships is self-righteous bullshit. Working for free early in your career is an incredible opportunity.
If you're one of the college students who feels that unpaid internships are designed to exploit you, please keep one crucial fact in mind: Compared to more experienced job applicants in your profession, you're not very good at what you do. As economics writer Jeffery Tucker pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor, spending 16-20 years sitting in a classroom doesn't qualify you to do much of anything. That probably stings your ego a little bit, but it's the truth.
Getting paid to do something you like at a professional level requires that you be good at it, and developing your skills usually takes several years. Honestly, it shouldn't shock you that employers aren't willing to pay you a decent salary right out of college. Considering that there are thousands of college students and recent graduates just like you, and that the economy is still rather sluggish, unpaid internships make perfect sense, both for you and for potential employers.
There's another important aspect to this debate that the critics typically miss. Demanding that interns be paid will encourage employers to adjust their behavior, since they'll be forced to pay for something they used to get for free. Sure, companies will be required to pay the interns they do take on, but they'll probably take on fewer interns in the first place. The Washington Times aptly summed up this argument in 2010, when the uproar over internships first got underway: “Basic economics teaches that if the price is raised, demand falls. If companies have to pay wages, they will take on fewer interns. If these youngsters were actually benefiting companies more than it costs to train them, companies would pay them.”
People who shake their fists in protest over the fact that interns aren't paid are missing the point. It's true that employers get free labor from interns for a certain period of time, but the experience gained as an intern is very valuable. This is what prompted me to ditch my pursuit of a degree and take an internship at the State Capitol in Sacramento. Instead of listening to lecture after lecture about the legislative process, I actually took part in the process. I did research, talked to constituents, attended important committee hearings, and watched the legislature in session. I learned a lot about California politics, most importantly that I didn't want a career in California politics — and the experience was completely free. The best part is that I was offered multiple jobs because of my time in the Capitol.
It's easy to frame unpaid internships as a scam profit-hungry corporations have foisted on disadvantaged college students, as anthropologist Sarah Kendzior did in an interview with PolicyMic last week. But that's also a falsehood. The reality is that internships have been around for centuries, though they were known by a different name for most of history. Going back to the 12th century, it was common for young people to enter a profession by completing apprenticeships for which they usually weren't paid. The point shouldn't be lost on anyone who writes for this website. There's no salary for being a PolicyMic pundit, but building a portfolio and having the editorial staff as references is certainly worthwhile if you're an aspiring writer.
I'll freely admit that unpaid internships suck in the short term. They suck even more when you have to get a job (or two) to pay your rent. But far from being some sort of assault on the American dream, unpaid labor allows millennials to create professional opportunities for ourselves that otherwise wouldn't exist.