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Unpaid internships: Are they worth it?

Colleagues.

Colleagues. (Credit: iStock)

A recent news story about a young woman who wanted to intern on Capitol Hill, Jessica Padron, captivated me because of her chutzpah. She was offered a spot in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over many other applicants. But Padron couldn't afford to take the internship, because it doesn't pay anything.

So, she put up a request on the website Indiegogo.com, asking for contributions of $6,500 to pay for four months' living expenses -- and 120 people responded. Padron made her fundraising goal.

The 20-year-old University of Nevada student is an American success story. She is the first in her family to go to college. But her tale also illustrates the downside of unpaid internships. People whose families can't support them to work for free often miss out on these opportunities.

Unpaid internships reinforce the declining social mobility in America. According to Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project, more than 40 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth in family income remain stuck there as adults.

Sure, internships offer wonderful benefits apart from money. Assuming they're well-structured to include more than filing and fetching, they can provide resume-building work experience and insight about careers. But interns shouldn't be exploited as free labor. A small stipend, a housing allowance, travel reimbursement -- these would go a long way toward opening internships to everyone.

What's more, recent court cases and employer concessions argue against unpaid internships.

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