Valuable Experience or Exploitation? The Unpaid Intern


Although unpaid internships for postgraduates has long existed for film and various nonprofits, in recent years it has spread across many new industries including publishing companies, public relations firms, talent agencies, and galleries. Of the 10 million students who are at a four-year college in the U.S., more than 75% will have at least one internship before graduating, and out of this number it is estimated that one-third will be unpaid.

Unpaid internships are competitive and highly sought after – with the hope of landing that dream job upon completion. However, many are finding that the experience is not what they expected – and this was my story five years ago. I graduated with two degrees, one in costume design, the other in apparel merchandising, as well as a minor in music. I spent two years scrambling for work, taking various retail jobs and constantly struggling to find happiness in my career. But then I got my big break — I landed an unpaid internship in NYC at a major fashion company. I had high hopes of meeting important people in the industry, networking, and learning as much valuable information as possible.

I knew the work wouldn’t be glamorous, but I had hoped to gain at least something valuable from the experience. However, I found myself months into the internship with no offer of payment or a permanent job, working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, fetching coffee, cleaning the office, and running errands, all while being treated with zero respect. The fashion company had seen so many interns over the years, I was just another, very disposable, young face.

“When workers are ‘putting in extra time, accepting lower pay or poorer conditions’ they are ‘either directly or indirectly . . . constructing new bars for their own cages, or those of others.’ (Hesmondhalgh & Baker)

The increasing number of individuals willing to participate in unpaid internships has created an industry that is not thankful, but instead expecting of interns. Many postgraduates experience the intern “treadmill” where they will take on multiple unpaid internships — after another, never receiving a paid job. In theory I like the idea of the hands-on internship, as I believe real world experiences outside of the classroom are imperative. However, in practice the unpaid internship has become a vicious and dangerous cycle, which is a large burden to carry for students with hefty debt and no income, rewarding the rich and punishing the poor and disadvantaged.

Nikki Tuttle


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