Unpaid internships perpetuate increasingly divided work force

Last month my father had to wire me money for my rent. I was working in New York this summer – rather, interning in New York. Apart from the amazing experience my internship gave me,

Last month my father had to wire me money for my rent. I was working in New York this summer – rather, interning in New York. Apart from the amazing experience my internship gave me, it also left me with an empty bank account and countless nights of financial stress.

While in New York, I was wistful about my co-interns’ lifestyles. Their parents paid their $1,000+ monthly rent at posh apartments in the Village while I struggled to make the measly $300 to pay for my shack in a suburb in New Jersey.

Now, I think I’m done with the business of working for free. Though internships are crucial for students because employers are always looking for job candidates with previous experience, most unpaid internships put those from working-class backgrounds in a catch-22.

Vice presidential candidate John Edwards argues that there are “two Americas,” one for the rich and one for the rest of us. I couldn’t agree more. Most internships in fields other than business and computers are unpaid or very poorly paid.

But still, students are expected to pay for their food, living and transportation costs.

Unpaid internships are regarded as volunteer positions by the Labor Department but students perform the same tasks as other employees. So how can a poor, unassuming student like me believe that we aren’t being exploited for free labor?

The value of internships and the weight it adds to your resume is unquestionable. In a 2004 survey of 360 companies, nonprofit organizations and government offices by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 84 percent reported having internship programs.

About 45 percent of those employers filled full-time staff positions out of their intern pools. And by God’s grace, when I graduate next year, I’ll have a job offer through one of the contacts I made at one of my internships.

I don’t deny the fact that all my internships were a learning experience. But they also left me bitter and penniless. In my home country, India, one American dollar is equal to 50 Indian rupees. My father had to work 50 times harder to pay for my expenses while I performed menial tasks such as making copies and cleaning tables at my internships.

One of the interns I met in New York confided to me that she was actually paying for her internship. It was unpaid – but her firm required her to get college credits for the internship. So she ended up paying $1,500 to her school to get three credits for her internship, while also taking out loans to pay for her living and boarding costs in New York.

Needless to say, it didn’t take much to convince me that getting internships is already easier for the wealthy. According to USA Today, only 20 percent of college students come from households earning more than $100,000 per year; and yet over 60 percent of interns work unpaid. In sum, you don’t have to be talented to gain an internship – you have to be wealthy to afford one.

Slowly but surely, a class system is emerging within the internship world; one that discriminates against students with less of an economic advantage. A recent article in the Duluth News Tribune expressed fear about the possible polarization, saying, “Over the long term, internships will be another means, like the rising costs of college tuition, of squeezing voices from the working class and the middle class.”

Internships are investments, and I treated my unpaid internships as though I am paying my dues to earn the right to demand for a paid job when I graduate. But a president who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth cannot be expected to understand my plea for a right to be paid for internships. I fervently hope that by the time I graduate and land a job, I will be in a position (even if it is enforced by law) to pay my intern.

On another note, I like to live by what I say – I quit my unpaid internship yesterday.

Jinal Ajay Shah can be reached at jshah28@yahoo.com.

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