I read “Sorry, I can’t afford work experience” in last week’s edition and, considering I accepted an offer for an internship just hours before reading the paper, it was very relevant to me and really resonated with me – although perhaps not in the way one might think. Let me explain.
First I would like to say that I think it is admirable that the author is working so hard to get ahead in life. In these changing times, cramming your schedule is all but mandatory to have a shot at a good job upon graduation. And it is absolutely a challenge at times.
However, I think there are a few things the author didn’t quite get right. First off, the facts are shaky, especially relating to the legal protections an intern receives. In fact, HR 3231, the Federal Intern Protection Act of 2015, passed January 11, affords equal status to interns as employees when it comes to federal antidiscrimination laws, passed unanimously in the House Who says our representatives can’t agree on anything? In addition, Olsson v Nyack Hospital and Kinder v Industrial Claim Appeals Office, in 1993 and 1998 respectively, both ruled that interns hurt on the job were entitled to compensation similarly to employees.
Furthermore, the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) actually does define volunteers and interns. Volunteers can only perform work for public service, humanitarian, or religious objectives. They must not displace other employees, and for-profit employers are not allowed to have volunteers. Interns are always allowed for public sector employees, and they are banned for private sector employees unless they meet a series of stringent tests; most importantly, the company is not allowed to derive any real benefit from the intern’s work. Since the point of the internship is for the intern to be educated, this is going to be costly to the company to teach the intern. These FLSA rules are important. They allow the government to benefit from the work of willing students, while these students learn. They make it okay for Grandma to volunteer at the library to help people find books to read. But they also protect people from being coerced to labor for free. It is a balancing act – not something that is cut and dried.
Additionally, the comparison the author draws between interns and secretaries is completely valid – which actually goes against the author’s point. Entry level staffers in Washington DC are very likely to have a similar job description to that of a secretary or personal assistant. If an intern is below entry level (that’s why they’re an intern), then how does that not make perfect sense?
I must also raise the point that many of us just do make it work. The author mentions that she is privileged enough to survive while doing unpaid internships. I think that is great; more power to her. However, those of us not from privileged backgrounds might take offense to being painted with so broad a brush when the author says that “social mobility is excluded” for us. I come from a household in which I must shell out the cash for gas to be driven down to UCR after summer is over. My parents simply cannot afford to support me at all; not even by filling the fridge with groceries before they drive back home. So I work at the library. I sit on a paying committee. I am a member of ASUCR. And I will be interning for a Congressional office this summer, during my spare time. All the while, I have food in my fridge, a roof over my head, and time to sleep, exercise, and most importantly, study. This is not some coincidence. This costs me, in many ways. I make great sacrifices to plan for my future and put my education and financial well-being first. Is it exhausting? Absolutely. Do I wish I could do some things that I simply can’t? Yes. But these things are going to help me immensely in my future and it is worth every bit of sacrifice.
My hope in penning this letter is that readers will realize that everything is not so gloom and doom as they might believe after reading “Sorry, I can’t afford work experience”. I hope they might consider that it isn’t as black and white as “greedy employers [exploiting] the enthusiasm of students”. And what I hope above all is that students who must financially support themselves can be as much of a success story as anyone. It’s going to take some hard work, some sacrifice, and some creativity, yes. Those things are part of anything worth anything in life. But achievement is within reach for anyone who has made it to UC Riverside – no matter what kind of background they come from.