By Nisha Sweet
Summer has finally arrived, the time where college students can enjoy their time off from busy classes and exams to enjoy their… internships? Many college students, especially those eager to enter into an area of business after their undergraduate experience, spend painstaking months throughout the year researching, networking, applying, and interviewing for top tier internships that are sure to make them stand out to future employers and ultimately put them in an advantageous position to excel in the post-grad world. This seems to be a normal trajectory for the vast majority of those in higher education, where internships act as a pre-requesite for attaining a job. However, the demanding nature of the internship process is much more selective than being simply “qualified” for the position. Socioeconomic status plays a large role in the inequity of accessibility and feasibility of landing one of these sought after internships, pushing the upper middle class ahead, and leaving many of those of lower socioeconomic status to either scrape by and make sacrifices, or scramble after graduation. The American dream promises the access and attainability of social mobility, but the infrastructure and transition of higher education to an entry level job makes this difficult. Addressing problematic issues such as unpaid internships, opportunity costs, connections will help to shed light on a few of the inequities present in the relationship of social class and the internship process.
Unpaid internships, even for those that can afford them, are upsetting. Unpaid internships makeup 43% of the internship job opportunities in the United States, according to Washington Post. Although the Department of Labor has outlined extensive expectations and rules for employers engaging in hiring unpaid interns, some of the rules associated with this process act to only benefit the employer, rather than protect the intern. One of these primary beneficiary tests to address the relationship status of intern to employer states “the extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern”. This enforces that interns can go unpaid as long as it is not work that is usually done by an employee. The issue within this is that oftentimes, unpaid internships are often tied to smaller companies. These are the companies where there are few employees, so oftentimes, the interns are doing real work that would have to be done regardless of position in the company. Sometimes unpaid internships are offered at prestigious companies where the opportunity would be hard to pass up. Unpaid internships are usually paired with the reward of receiving college credit, making the experience directly linked to being essential to educational value. Bottomline, many unpaid internships are used by companies to source free or low cost labor under the guise of providing essential skills to students desperately seeking whatever experience they can find or to students drawn to the prestige of a top company- because lets be honest, an unpaid internship is not anyone’s first choice. If you are an upper middle class student, a position being unpaid is only a slight disappointment; receiving that college credit acts as an extension of the benefits of tuition paid by parents, and oftentimes upper middle class families have the privilege of not having to worry about paying for their child’s living costs and can prioritize the importance of gaining experience in the corporate world.
But what about the students for whom unpaid internships are not just a disappointment – but rather a struggle or even impossible? For students who are economically disadvantaged or have thousands of dollars of debt, finding the financial resources or time to intern for free are concerns. In a study across five post-secondary institutions reflecting different geographic locations, student body characteristics, and institutional missions: of 676 students who answered “no” to having participated in an internship in the last 12 months, the most common reason that prevented students from taking an internship was the need to work at their current paid job (60%) (https://wcer.wisc.edu/docs/working-papers/WCER_Working_Paper_No_2019_8.pdf). For many working class students, the opportunity cost of continuing to work at their full or part time jobs are the potential doors of opportunity that the internship would open. However, this is a cost many have to endure in order to provide for themselves and maintain their student status, further enforcing the glass ceiling of social mobility. Another factor influencing mobility in a more literal sense is geographic location of internships. Many internships require the intern to relocate (usually to a city) to work at a company’s branch or headquarters. This requires transportation costs and housing costs that many students would not be able to afford. According to a study performed at a University in the UK, “Middle class students interviewed were both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the role of internships in their career development, whereas working class students were more likely to be critical of internships and viewed them—even high quality, well-paid internships—as an exploitative waste of time, using highly emotive language to describe internships such as ‘slave labour’and ‘exploitation’. (O’Connor, H., & Bodicoat, M. (2017). Exploitation or opportunity? Student perceptions of internships in enhancing employability skills. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(4), 435–449.) The semantics associated with internships shows the stark difference in perception of how internships benefit or hurt students across different socioeconomic classes. Overall, the opportunity of internships greatly benefits students who can afford it. Students who cannot afford unpaid internships are left behind, making it more difficult to climb the corporate ladder due to financial priorities.
Another set of barriers to internship participation include sociocultural factors such as social and professional networks. These networks are important because they represent channels through which information, resources, and social affirmation—also known as social capital—can flow and grant prestige to well-connected students (https://wcer.wisc.edu/docs/working-papers/WCER_Working_Paper_No_2019_8.pdf). This is especially tied to industries that are more difficult to break into than others such as finance, consulting, and creative industries. Some students are lucky to have these connections and social capital through family and friends and have less need to spend time seeking out connections to help them along the way. It is an open secret that nepotism is core to attaining careers in the creative industries but not everyone has the same privileges of access to friends or relatives with power or influence (Interning and Investing: Rethinking Unpaid Work, Social Capital, and the “Human Capital Regime”). Students whose parents or friends who are already well established in professional cultures and networks will have an advantage over those who lack access to such communities, creating another barrier for first generation, minority, and working class students to cross.
The extent to which employers rely on internship experience deepens and perpetuates structural inequities. With the pandemic negatively affecting those of lower socioeconomic status and in many cases boosting the wealth of upper middle class and upper class, while also making it less likely for companies to hire interns due to costs and efficiencies, it has been harder than ever for the working class to achieve the desirable internship status. Creating and promoting company wide diversity recruitment programs in industries where internships are prerequisites will greatly help those heavily influenced by financial obligations to break through the glass ceiling. Universities providing adequate resources and connections associated with different industries will help students create their own social capital and become their own self starter. Finally, social mobility is only possible through security. Interns and employees who are comfortable in their pay and company culture will be more likely to provide their time, service and attention to companies which will provide for mutual success.