Workin' hard ... for the money?

By Lori Foley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 15, 2005

The scene: I'm lying in bed, desperately trying to sound way more awake than I am. It's 7:30 a.m., and I'm on a phone interview for a summer internship, hoping my confident voice is conjuring up a mental image of someone dressed in a power suit, casually sipping a latte or at the very least, the image of someone who took the time to get out of bed for her interview.

The real me, on the other hand, is swatting blankets off my head and realizing that I still have some drool on the side of my face as the voice on the phone tells me one last thing: "Oh, and we won't be able to pay you. It's just not in the budget this year."

Perfect. I'd been looking for an opportunity to do someone's filing and copying for free. And I'd found it!

I took the internship. Like almost everyone here at the UA, I needed the job. It provided me with experiences that I couldn't have had in the classroom and helped me make contacts in a field that I hope to work in some day. And, luckily, I ended up getting to do a bit more than copying and faxing. But that's certainly not the case for everyone.

Internships are more important now than ever. According to Mark Oldman, co-founder of the Vault, a company that provides information to those in the job market, about 80 percent of this generation's graduating college seniors have worked in a paid or unpaid internship, compared with about 60 percent a decade ago.

Internships provide something more than grades for our potential employers to judge us by. They give insight into our interests, work capacity and ability. They provide opportunities for us to figure out what really interests us. And they frequently provide loads of free or very cheap labor for the companies that give them.

USA Today reports that 60 percent of internships are unpaid. This number jumps in highly competitive fields such as politics, film and other media-related sectors.

The financial burden of an unpaid internship isn't limited to the lack of a paycheck. Students must pay for living expenses and often for the cost of relocation while working. As if this weren't enough, some students who are given (or are required to receive, as is the case in many unpaid internships) university credit for their work must pay their university for the credit hours.

The financial drain of unpaid internships puts students from less affluent backgrounds at an extreme disadvantage. Many simply cannot afford not to earn income for an entire summer, and the idea of actually spending money to work somewhere borders on ludicrous for students for whom the regular costs of the academic year are a major financial burden.

However, it's not just financially disadvantaged students who lose out; the corporations behind the policies do as well. Very talented individuals who simply cannot afford the internship experiences that many others can are less likely to be hired down the road. And so, the best may be kept out of the workforce.

This problem is even more severe in media, politics and other particularly competitive industries. For students who can afford it, there are organizations that arrange internships with major corporations in these fields, charging a sky-high "program cost." It's summer camp's smarmy older brother - but instead of making lanyards and learning fire safety, the campers prepare PowerPoint presentations and write staff memos.

Of course, the fault doesn't lie with the students who are able to take these internships. They're to be commended for using available resources to expand their skills. The fact that someone is not at a financial advantage does not make him less deserving of a job.

But the current system does exclude many deserving and motivated students with financial constraints.

The responsibility for changing the system lies with the corporations that have spawned it. They are the ones that will, in the end, reap the greatest rewards. By leveling the playing field through offering paid internships, they will provide training for all qualified individuals, who will enhance their businesses when entering the work force full time.

It's understandable that offering only paid internships may be unrealistic for small, non-profit organizations. But huge, national corporations? Both moral and corporate responsibility would dictate that workers should be paid, regardless of their age or the potential future benefits of the experience.

So, we're waiting. It's time to close up the summer camps and make things fair.

Lori Foley is a senior majoring in French and English. She can be reached at