Why Unpaid Internships Still Exist In Corporate America

Internship experience can significantly boost your chances of landing your first job. The problem? A significant number of internships in the U.S. are still unpaid. In 2021, nearly 50% of internships were unpaid, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. These types of internships have proven to further inequity, giving opportunities to a select few while isolating others. So why are unpaid internships still so prevalent in our workforce today?

For many young workers, an internship offers their first taste of the “real world,” and many interns take home a very real paycheck of $0.

According to a recent survey of 267 employers (including big-name companies such as Adidas, Dell and Wells Fargo) by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average hourly wage for paid interns in the summer of 2020 was $20.76 — an increase of $1.22 from the previous year and the highest rate ever measured.

But while competition at top employers may have led to good pay for some, a recent NACE survey of college students found more than 40% of interns surveyed said they were not paid.

Unpaid internships can be a controversial topic. Some argue they provide valuable exposure for young people trying to learn about an industry, while others critique the practice as an excuse to exploit free labor from young workers eager to get a foot in the door.

CNBC Make It spoke with experts to learn why unpaid internships exist — and why many feel these roles blur the line between opportunity and exploitation.

Legal precedence

The Fair Labor Standards Act, originally passed in 1938, requires for-profit employers and non-profit employers that generate $500,000 or more in business annually, to pay employees for their work.

This act was soon impacted by the 1947 Supreme Court case Walling v. Portland Terminal Company. At the time, the Portland Terminal Company offered an unpaid program for aspiring railroad brakemen that lasted for seven or eight days. When trainees sued the company, hoping to get paid, the case made it to the Supreme Court, which ultimately found participants did not need to be paid because they were “trainees” rather than employees, based on the court’s finding that “the trainee’s work does not expedite the railroad’s business, but may, and sometimes does, actually impede and retard it.”

This decision created a long-lasting precedent for the conditions under which it is legal for employers to not pay trainees and interns. Essentially, an organization does not need to pay an intern under the argument that the intern is receiving more benefit from the relationship than the organization.

As work has changed, so did the role that interns provide organizations.

“In the 1970s, internships became more common across various industries as the college population grew due to the inclusion of women and other groups,” says Joshua Kahn, NACE assistant director of research. “This expansion of the college population occurred during a tight job market, so unpaid internships became seen as a way to help get these folks some experience in lieu of a full-time, paying job.”

Over the next several decades, internships expanded among both for-profit and non-profit organizations.

“By 1992, about 17% of college students had participated in an internship, with that number increasing to about 50% by 2008. This year, in our most recent data, 75% of graduating seniors said they participated in some type of internship experience,” says Kahn.

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Why Unpaid Internships Still Exist

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