Editorial: The opportunity cost


“What are you doing over the summer?” is the age old question asked by relatives and acquaintances alike.

At this point during the semester, some college students have their summer planned out while others are still trying to figure out how they’ll take advantage of the three months off from school.
Many college students try to get a summer internship as a way to develop career-specific skills, acquire experience to put on their resumes and explore their chosen field. The value of internships is mostly the experience and industry exposure to be gained as a young professional. Yet, they’re often expensive endeavors.
Unpaid internships, especially, are a cost to students trying to gain these experiences. When students are left wageless during internships, they can instead receive college credit. But this puts them in a position where they must pay for the credits through their university, so they end up spending money in order to complete the internship.
But then what if the student doesn’t live near their internship? They have to pay for housing and transportation, even more of a cost in order to gain valuable work experience.
Paid internships, however, offer a reprieve from out-of-pocket student spending. But depending on the wage, it might still not cover all their expenses if they’re not living at home or have to pay for transportation.
These factors give an advantage to socioeconomically privileged candidates when accepting internships, since these individuals can afford to work for less compensation. The system hurts others who may have been as — or more — qualified but had to decline the opportunity due to economic circumstance.
With a job market that increasingly looks for previous experience for entry-level jobs, the system’s flaws could put less economically privileged kids at a disadvantage. If students need to earn money during the summer to sustain themselves for the upcoming semester, interning — especially interning far away from home — seems like a less feasible option.
Companies that offer internships benefit from having unpaid or minimum-wage interns because they can save money by hiring them instead of a designated person to do menial tasks. If students can’t break even from the experience, do they lose more than they gain? Or should students make a profit, since they’re working and need to cover expenses not only for the duration of the internship, but for after?
The applicants for internships might not have been qualified enough for an entry-level job, so interning teaches the necessary skills for those kinds of placements. But companies should be aware of the intern’s financial needs and seek to meet them. That way, they give qualified interns a real shot at accepting a worthwhile opportunity.
Legal issues also come into play when offering internships. Unpaid internships need to meet certain criteria. But often, that criteria is hazy enough to allow employers to toe the line between right and wrong. The six criteria basically state that the internship is for the benefit of the intern and would be similar to training in an educational environment in which the intern works closely with existing staff. It specifically states an “employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” The last two criteria state that the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of their internship and both intern and employer understand the lack of compensation.
A couple of years ago,Conde Nast was under fire for lawsuits that past interns brought forward, saying they were underpaid during their time at the company. The internship allegedly required interns to run personal errands for bosses as well as other menial tasks. Interns came out feeling that they had not fully learned about the industry. Last November the company agreed to pay a total of $5.8 million to interns who worked with them between June 2007 to December 2014. The most each intern could get — depending on the type of internship — was $1,900.
It’s important for companies not only to make the opportunity more accessible by providing financial support, but to ensure students learn more than how to fetch coffee and run errands. The point of internships is to learn about the field, so an experience should teach interns about the work they’re going to be doing in the future.
Internships have become an almost necessary part of college education and a requirement for most entry-level jobs. Companies should make sure their internships are fair, represent the industry and give fair wages. If not, what’s their point?

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