As summer approaches, many Cornelians lock down their summer jobs and internships. For some students, however, an important factor is whether an internship is a paid position.
Unpaid internships are a controversial topic, seen as both a way to gain valuable work experience and a way for companies to exploit young workers wanting to get into their field.
Despite their controversy, unpaid internships are fully legal. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires courts to use the “primary beneficiary test,” which measures whether an intern qualifies as an employee based on who the primary beneficiary of the job is. If the employee is the primary beneficiary, meaning the business itself does not receive as much value as the worker, then payment is not required.
For some students like Faith Johnson ’23, unpaid internships aren’t as valuable as a paid position.
“I’ve had paid and unpaid internships in the past,” Johnson said. “I can say with certainty that when the internship is unpaid, I am much less engaged and sometimes tend to enjoy it less. It really makes you wonder why you are working.
Similar to Johnson, Reed Milnor ’24 prefers paid positions.
“Whether [an internship] is paid or not definitely affects my decision [to take the position]. The quality of the internship or the potential impact on my career should be very important for me to consider pursuing it without pay,” said Milnor.
In the United States, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 student interns each year, and approximately 40% of these positions are unpaid. Paid internships are about 52% more likely to result in a full-time job offer than unpaid internships.
Jacob Wynkoop ’23 explains how he would take an unpaid position if it put him in a better position when he graduates.
“Last summer I ended up doing research because I thought the opportunity to conduct field research at Cornell was more valuable to my education than the paid internship opportunity I had” , Wynkoop said. “This summer, on the other hand, I specifically sought out paid internships due to personal financial incentives.”
Like Wynkoop, Xavier Martinez ’23 bases his decision on his financial situation and whether the internship could provide him with valuable post-graduation experience.
“Of course, I’d rather get paid, but I’m very lucky that my family kept the financial training wheels on my sister and me, which would allow me to do an unpaid internship,” Martinez said. “If my schedule allowed, I might even consider finding another job to supplement an unpaid position and earn some kind of income.”
An alternative that some employers take regarding interns is to provide students with a stipend to offset transportation or college credits.
Sammy Phelps ’23 said the expenses of college life forced him to seek out internships with a salary or stipend for living costs.
“Unless that’s exactly what I’m looking for, the only way to accept an unpaid internship is to receive a stipend from the company or a scholarship from Cornell,” Phelps said. “College life is expensive, and an unpaid position definitely affects whether or not I accept the position.”