Unpaid, paid internships raise concerns about accessibility

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As UC Berkeley students work to kick-start their careers, many struggle to afford to take on an unpaid internship, precluding them from gaining necessary work experience.

Instead of financially compensating student interns, many companies and employers offer interns academic credit to avoid potential liability issues, according to the UC Berkeley Career Center. However, many students cannot afford to dedicate sufficient time to an internship opportunity without being paid for their work.

“During my community college years, I met a lot of people who are unable to continue their leadership roles because they can’t be paid, and they have to find a real job to support themselves and their family,” said ASUC Senator Rex Zhang in an email. “This continues to be the case for a lot of students at UC as well.”

Internships, both paid or unpaid, are valuable for students who are either looking to explore a potential career path or gain experience in their field of interest. They enable students to develop “learning tools” that cannot be taught in a traditional classroom setting, according to ASUC Senator Ruchi Shah.

She added that internships can provide students with professional experience, which can help them land a job in the future.

While unpaid internships can still benefit students, many cannot afford to take on such opportunities without being paid, including some students from underrepresented minority communities.

“Unpaid internships are a form of systemic racism,” said ASUC Senator Alexis Aguilar in an email. “For far too long now, organizations and corporations continue to exploit the intelligence, creativity, and capacities of our students of color.”

According to Aguilar, students who are undocumented face especially high barriers to opportunities for professional development.

Specifically, Aguilar said not all students who are undocumented are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which provides individuals with the ability to legally work in the United States.

“For many Undocumented students, without protection under DACA, their immigration status has and proceeds to set substantial barriers in their attempts to seek professional development,” Aguilar said in the email. “Limited postgraduate preparation, along with uncertainty to be legally employed, continues to be detrimental stressors to our students’ academic experience.”

While Zhang believes that unpaid internships exclude students from disadvantaged communities, he also maintains that “unpaid internships are better than nothing at all.” He added that many international students are kept out of paid internships.

“Unpaid internships are helpful to (international students), because there are constraints for them in terms of how much they can work on paid jobs, and many employees are unwilling to hire or sponsor international students due to the bureaucracy and systematic barriers,” Zhang said in his email.

Employers can also struggle to afford to compensate students for their work. This, according to Zhang, tends to create more paid opportunities for students pursuing fields related to business and technology, as their employers are more likely to be able to compensate students as interns.

In order to support students seeking internship opportunities, Shah said her team is specifically working to create the Salary Negotiations Database to help students determine an appropriate starting salary. The first set of data, according to Shah, will be released next week.

In addition to establishing the Salary Negotiations Database, Shah said her office is working on creating a program to foster mentor-mentee relationships between current students and professionals in their fields of interest. According to Shah, the program could help students get referrals for future opportunities.

Zhang said his office is also working to bolster career training services that specifically seek to assist the international and transfer student communities.

He also stressed the importance of working with individual academic departments to help create “internship match-up opportunities” and increased possibilities for counting an internship experience as a major requirement.

“The campus has a responsibility for students, especially those who want to enter the workforce after graduation, to find internships,” Zhang said in an email. “The current career center is not sufficient.”

Additionally, Zhang stressed the importance of advocating for more paid internships in all industries to help those who cannot afford to take on an unpaid position.

In order to aid students who are undocumented, Aguilar hopes to expand career opportunities for undocumented students while raising awareness about helpful resources.

“Career development skills such as entrepreneurship, professional leadership, team building, communication, problem-solving, networking, are all pivotal aspects that should be manifested and encompassed by every single Undocumented student receiving a college education, not just those with status,” Aguilar said in his email.

Contact Mallika Seshadri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.