The Case to Pay Interns

I’m back with a mid-week (surprise?) article for those of you that read Ethanomics. As a college student, this issue is relevant to my peers and me and will forever be. I know my feelings on the subject are far from unique, and I would go as far as claiming my feelings are shared with an overwhelming majority of students and young professionals.


I’m not just another entitled millennial/gen-z who wants to forgo their right of passage and get straight to the salaried benefits experienced by many in adulthood. Unpaid internships play a large part in perpetuating the wealth gap in America and prevent many families from building up on generational wealth to pass down to kids. I understand many people have benefitted from unpaid internships and some cite them as the reason for their success as a professional, but still, those unpaid internships could and should be paid opportunities.

For starters, the experience of an unpaid internship is vaguely elitist in that the children of wealthier individuals can work for free while children of poorer individuals can’t necessarily do the same. As a junior in college with two working parents, I’m fortunate enough to be able to accept an unpaid internship if it presents itself. Despite not being paid, I wouldn’t be struggling to pay rent and buy food because I have all that at home. For poorer families, my reality is a pipe dream. As children come of working age, many are forced, or at least pressured, by parents to generate an income to help out at home while studying and work full/part-time during academic breaks. Children essential to household success have a more difficult time gaining experience as unpaid interns because they still feel pressure to generate an income.

As students graduate from college and move on to the professional world, many interns successfully parlay their internship into a career upon graduation, but the students who had to turn down those positions never had a shot. Generally, a lack of experience in college is reflected on a student’s resume and perceived as laziness or ineptitude to employers. Though I lack concrete evidence on this, I’d say it’s safe to assume that students who turn internships into careers at the same company start with a higher salary relative to a student who didn’t intern at that company and the same for a student with experience vs. a student with no internship.

The wealth gap gets perpetuated when students who came from well-off families leverage their experience (made possible by familial wealth) into higher salaries than students who grew up without the same luxuries. A pay gap as small as 5–10% may seem insignificant to individuals looking to build their wealth to pass on, but as a recent graduate, 10% on $30,000 is $3,000; enough to pay for a couple of months rent or start building equity in a starter home.

As with many other wage-related issues, small business draws the short end of the stick relative to big business who can afford to pay interns more. It’s hard to draft a policy solution that easily solves this problem, but a policy similar to government wage assistance as covered in my previous wage article found here, where interns are classified as full employees and paid a fair wage, can bridge that gap.

In conclusion, what starts as a wealth gap gets exacerbated by experiential and opportunity gaps in offspring, a chain that can be broken by paying interns. It’s time to stop gatekeeping the experience as a rite of passage and compensate interns fairly. Finally, to my fellow students reading this: don’t feel guilty accepting an unpaid position for the time being. An individual decision won’t make or break a systemic wealth gap and the experience gained will help get you to a place to lead systemic change later on.

If you hate trickle-down economics and love pages whose names are puns, this is the place for you.