Unpaid Internships? No Such Thing

College students who serve as interns in order to train for their desired professions and receive only college credit—or sometimes just the experience—in return, are not being exploited. Pro or con?

Pro: Supply and Demand

Whether it’s a role as Nellie Forbush in a community theater production of South Pacific or a six-week college internship as a production assistant at a local TV network, people old and young have always been more than willing to take unsalaried work to do something a bit glamorous that they enjoy.

Hence, media outlets like magazines and TV shows, and sports enterprises, don’t always have to offer money to clinch the most promising student to fill their internships. The number of applicants far exceeds the number of spots available, so “employers” can choose highly talented students who require no remuneration.

No monetary remuneration, that is. In return for double-checking facts and figures on the Internet or taking on a research project about the average square footage of trade show booths in Cincinnati, a college intern at a travel-industry news publication learns what it takes to be an editor.

She also will likely get the opportunity to write short articles under her byline—writing samples she can show to prospective employers when she graduates and applies for a salaried editorial assistant job at a big-name consumer travel magazine.

“As long as the intern gets what is promised, it doesn’t violate any ethical principle,” says Bruce Weinstein, who is known as the Ethics Guy and writes BusinessWeek.com’s Ethics column.

Likewise, no one forces these kids to pursue internships. They’re generally not a graduation requirement. “These students must perceive some value in these internships,” says Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. “Otherwise, they would work at Starbuck’s (SBUX) for $10 an hour.”

So what if they have to do some work unrelated to their desired fields—like making coffee or covering the lunch shift at the reception desk? “We all do some tasks at work that aren’t directly related to our careers,” Brook says. Indeed, no one becomes a lawyer because it’s fun to tote around a 20-pound briefcase or fill out expense reports, but it’s all part of the job in a chosen field.

Con: Exploitation, Plain and Simple

Investment banks pay their interns up to $10,000 for the summer, and top law firms give theirs as much as $3,000 a week. So why can’t a major sports franchise fork over minimum wage to its interns, who may very well end up spending much of their tenure as ticket-counter cashiers? That hardly qualifies as glamour.

And what about the 18-year-old who lives at home while struggling to scrape up tuition money? He may be a budding David Letterman, but if he doesn’t have the cash to pay New York City rent and transportation costs, he can’t accept an unpaid internship with network TV that could make his résumé golden.

Entertainment and sports enterprises give their stars millions, but don’t pay anything to a college kid who does anything she’s asked, including unloading the office kitchen’s dishwasher and being a gofer.

But there’s no shortage of applicants, because ostensibly glitzy industries know there will always be a surplus of willing—make that desperate—kids to take advantage of.

And it’s not just sports and media that stiff kids. Marketing, public relations, and other types of firms, especially small ones, have been known to do the same.

“Students want to have at least one internship on their résumés,” says Lee Svete, director of the career center at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business undergraduate program. “We’re seeing more and more freshmen wanting internships because they know it will help their careers. So if you’re a junior and have never had an internship, you might have to sacrifice some money.”

To help those who can’t afford unpaid internships, Mendoza is generously giving financial aid so they can get valuable experience without hardship. It’s an act of kindness indeed, but in essence adds up to higher learning funding industry. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

random

I would agree with the idea that as long as the interns know exactly what their internship entails, what they would be doing and that they wouldn't be paid for it, unpaid internship is all right. I did unpaid internship work and got plenty of experience that helped me land a job in the past and which I still use to my monetary advantage.

But if you've been promised that you're going to tour around with bands, take pictures, and help write captions when interning at a music magazine but end up only making coffee, organizing files, and being a receptionist, that's bait and switch exploitation that should be reported as a black mark on the employer's record in a public forum.

Linda

The use of unpaid interns is fair in theory, but in practice is often just exploitation. Right out of college I took an internship at a respected local magazine for no pay. I was aware that the internship was uncompensated when I came into the position, but I was told that I would be given the opportunity to write small articles and begin building a portfolio of published clips. To me, exchanging labor for experience was more than a fair trade. I think most people in my position would have agreed. However the reality of the situation was much different. The tasks I was given at the magazine consisted of fact checking, opening mail, and fetching cigarettes. I did, however, get to write a few small captions, but captions don't come with bylines. And to add insult to injury, the other interns and I were often asked to stay and work past 5:30. The magazine had clearly not held up its fair share of the deal. I was promised a challenging learning experience with writing opportunities, but all I got was a string of meaningless administrative tasks. And I don't think my experience was unique. Internships are often packaged as learning experiences, but when the intern arrives, suddenly everyone is too busy to take the time and coach the newbie. However, I do believe that internships can be fair as long as the company truly attempts to mentor the intern. That is obviously a very time-consuming and taxing project, but it is the only way to fairly compensate someone who is not being paid. Unfortunately for me, the people who ran the magazine had no intention of mentoring young writers; they only wanted someone to open their mail.

Kate

I agree with the above comment; as long as the internship offers something valuable to the intern that cannot be gained at a temp agency, the practice is fair in theory.

I recently interned at a place where I was given a small stipend weekly. This would seem more than fair, but I was actually an older intern who was changing careers. I chose interning over temping, because I believed that "in theory" I would gain access to knowledge I wouldn't have found otherwise. Although this was true perhaps one or two days per month, most of my tasks were things that any gerbil on a wheel could accomplish.

Therefore, one must ask these questions of his/her supervisor before accepting the position:

1. Will you allow me to shadow you during some of your executive meetings and your more complex tasks even if you aren't always ready to delegate them to me?

2. Will I be encouraged to volunteer my services in other departments and divisions so that I may gain a well-rounded experience?

3. Will you support me as I work to formulate my own working style and ideas to solving more complex problems?

4. Will I have opportunities to meet with you regularly regarding my progress as an apprentice in this field?

dxf

I say unpaid internships are generally a bad deal, because you don't want to end up in a financial rut once you get out of school.

If your internship doesn't pay you, then I think you should really ask yourself if this is the company you really want to work in. The best companies that attract and recruit top talent generally pay near the top.

I don't think a startup company is suitable for an undergraduate looking for work in the summer.

The folks (including me) in my graduating class who finished college with minimal debts ($10K or less) worked part time during school and either worked full time during the summer or got an internship. The summer months were critical to saving up cash to pay for courses and books. The stuff I earned during the school year paid for incidentals.

GT

France is a country where internship has gone far. The present situation is that without one or several internships, a young graduate will not find a job. It means months or even more than a year of very low paid work with real responsibilities. It has become a widespread system that is overused by corporations as low-cost labor. A movement among internships, developed on the Internet, has finally emerged with repeated demonstrations in the street.

This is an example how internship can become another way to lower labor costs in the developed economies.

Grant Williams

"...[gaining] valuable experience without undue hardship"? Where in the real world does this occur? The thinking behind internships is that it provides students--those people who spend all of their other time learning the theory behind their chosen career--an idea of what it's like to implement those ideas in reality. That means distractions. Obviously it means distractions; why else would businesses accept interns and then put them to work dealing with those distractions? Sure, the ideal internship would consist of nothing except complete immersion in the company's central task, but isn't that what college is for? Isn't that what becoming a paid employee is for? Isn't that what keeping interns around is for?

jon

It's simple. Unpaid internships are not fair. It is simply exploitation.

komal

I remember as an international college student I had many restrictions to getting paid work here. Lucky for me, I got an unpaid internship with a major corporation. The work was OK; the people were fine. In the end, the name of that big corporation stayed on my resume, and it was easier for me to get my first job after graduation. Plus I got a feel of how Corporate America was working, the interactions within, and got to know some cool people. Today 10 years out and in the real world as a hiring manager in another mega corporation, I am on the other side of the fence, but if some kid walks in with a bunch of internships on his resume which he/she did along with college, got good grades etc., you bet he/she will have a head start and perhaps even get hired. Employers love to see people who can handle multiple priorities at the same time, and truly in my student days that's exactly what I learned. So I don't think it is exploitation; it is a win-win depending on your circumstances. Ideally we should all get paid internships, but some of don't.

Jeff

It makes interesting reading on your resume. It usually pays off in the end. It might be worth doing if there was, barring gross incompetence, a job at the end. Entry level jobs are rudimentary grunt work everywhere. It can take years before you get to do anything interesting. Internships have another advantage. They are usually a set amount of time, 30 to 90 days. A person should be extremely active during that time, approaching the boss every few days on their progress. Looking for work elsewhere at the same time. You are checking them out at the same time they are checking you out. If the internship is with the company of your dreams, it might be worth a lot to get your foot in the door. If it's a third-rate outfit anyway you won't be staying. There's no substitute for experience. There is no hard and fast answer for unpaid internships. It an investment. Some investments pay off, some don't. Invest wisely.

Charles Lester

I dare say that the issue is not whether or not nonpaying internships are a good or bad idea, but whether or not they are moral and should fall under yet another form of governmental control. What I mean by government control is, government-mandated pay by employers to what had otherwise been nonpaying internships.

First of all, my position is that if any adult chooses to work for nonfinancial compensation, then there is obviously something of value that he or she is seeking by undertaking whatever task are asked of him during whatever time he spends as an intern. The want adds in any newspaper have just a mere sample of the available undertakings that one can apply for that pay money. Surely a college student has had some exposure to the concept: employment, by the time that he seeks a form of internship such that he knows that there exist jobs that will pay him money for his time and effort. This being said, any college student who takes a nonfinancial compensatory internship is stating implicitly that he feels the rewards of the internship outweigh the value that he can get from paid employment, at least at a particular point in his own personal life.

Internships, much like classrooms in colleges and universities, offer knowledge that a student can take advantage of and use for their own personal development, for their own personal future achievement, and ultimate financial gain. And also as so with these same classrooms in colleges and universities across the country, some are good, and some are bad.

Just as a student has the right to judge the quality of education he receives at a college he attends, and to choose whether or not to transfer to another college, he has the right to seek another internship elsewhere if the quality of work and learning is not where he feels it should be in exchange for his efforts and time. My or anyone else's arbitrary notions about someone else's time are irrelevant.

Adults have the right to choose what they do and for whom. This is all the safeguard necessary for anyone. Any form of government control only serves to eliminate yet another bit of choice we as individuals have, and will ultimately lead to a situation that makes the worst of today's internships seem like heaven by comparison.

Aw

I am inclined to think there's a direct correlation between getting paid and getting good internship experience. Think about it: If the company has to pay you, it is likely to make full use of you by giving you more challenging jobs. Otherwise, you are pretty much treated as how everyone treats freebies. I am just talking from my own experience of working with two paid and fulfilling internships, but would like to hear from the rest of you if this is the case.

So to conclude, I think internships should be paid for the reasons I mentioned above, and also to help students who are not financially able. What is a few thousand dollars to these corporations when the students are usually hardworking, eager to learn, and eager to please?

Luis

I think it's plain exploitation. An internship should be paid, period. It's OK if it's paid at a lower rate, but it should have some kind of compensation. It's unfair to the interns and to the employees. I have often taken recent graduates or university students for internships, and I have always made sure they receive a decent compensation. It's only fair, and it shows respect for the company and the intern. Anything else, I believe, is pure exploitation, and interns should not settle for this type of abuse.

loflyer

I got my start in the IT field with an internship. I actually knew more than the employees supervising me, and they learned a lot, as did I. No pay for some good experience in operations, it was a good deal for both us. My current employer pays for it temps. We give them the jobs we hate, but need done. If they want in on the real interesting stuff, they can work without pay just like I did.

HT Bertram

Can you imagine Roark working as an intern? Not me.
HTB

Ex Intern

Most unpaid internships are unfair. The only fair internships are those where the student receives a lot of coaching and is more a burden than a benefit to the company. It's the U.S. law (Fair Labor Standards Act).

Charles Lester, with his individual freedom approach, misses a point: Are adults entering the deal really freely? We have an oversupply of labor that reduces the power of the students. Competing against one another, students have to accept the internships. Otherwise they have less experience to offer a future employer than their colleagues.

There's a Web site on this topic: unfairinternships.com.

Paul

The summer before I graduated college, I was offered an internship. Mine was paid, but I would have taken as if it was unpaid anyway for two reasons. One was for the experience in my field (programming) and to get my foot in the door. I worked hard that summer, and when I left for school at the end, it was with a job offer in hand. Made my last semester a lot less stressful. Twenty-four years later I am still working for the company that gave me the summer internship. So for me, it was a good investment.

Josh

I recently started a summer internship in New York City, working for a bank. Fortunately, it's paid, but if it wasn't I would not have been able to afford accommodation in New York City; I would have needed to find a gig somewhere locally where I could live at home. Because of this, it's obvious that a lot of these unpaid internships are not only reserved for the academically strong students, but also the ones who can afford this type of monetary sacrifice. I don't think it's a fair system.

anonymous

When working at a photography studio, don't assume your employer will let you have copies of, or any credit for, the photos you shoot.

Alexandr1a

Regardless of the benefits of having an internship, the intern should be paid a stipend, at least. After all, for-profit companies do not qualify for volunteer workers.

Furthermore, there are thousands of employees at an AT&T or an IBM who do absolutely no work all day and who refuse to learn new tools--just sit and chat on their Web cams with family all day. Why should they be paid?

al leong

Let the market decide. It will work out in the end (hard work = pay; easy work = no pay), value of training, reputation of firm, and what is learned are all factors.

Terry from Rochester

In a free market, the value of your skills is determined by what you can collect for them. If you have the skills, you deserve the pay.

If you lack the skills, a free internship is a gift. I'm struck by the irony of people paying six figures for a college degree who balk when they have to do a little grunt work to get the marketable skills they failed to get in school.

If we can assume there's some valid and truly useful learning available and you're not going to be exploited, valuable resources will be tied up for your benefit. Hopefully, you can actually get to a point where you're capable of making a high-value contribution.

Final thought -- the average job tenure is three years. How much of that time will actually lead to positive return on investment for shareholders?

Providence

All interns should receive a stipend to at least cover transportation costs. When I worked at a small firm, interns were paid $10 per hour. They contributed work that was important to the business.

John Anthony

I think it can easily go both ways. Some unpaid internships are yes, probably pure exploitation, while others may be that golden opportunity that will take the intern to the next level.

I can speak from experience that this is the case. I am currently a student attending a very well known MAC school., majoring in sports management and business. I have had many internships within my tenure here at this school, five to be exact. My unpaid internships went both ways as described before.

When I interned with our athletic development program, I did absolutely nothing for the four months. I, of course, did mailing and database work but nothing that would give me a good amount of knowledge about the profession. I was simply treated as somewhat of a handyman moving things around and cleaning up certain places.

My other internship was at a prestigious Big Ten university's athletic department. There I worked in major gifts among, other things and learned a great deal and never regretted that decision to this day.

Both were unpaid, but both ended with different tastes in my mouth. Sure, even a small stipend would have been great, so I didn't have to take even more student loans out to pay for my apartment or living expenses but both, even the crappy internship left me with something better. My crappy internship, on paper, led to me getting the Big Ten internship, which will lead me right where I want to start off my career. Was my first one exploitation? Of course it was. Did it help me out in the long run? Of course it did.

Now my major does call for an internship to be completed prior to graduation, which is where the Big Ten internship came into play. I could have also interned with a smaller company or a different school (some Atlantic-10 schools pay), but I decided to go for what's best for me and my future. Anyone who decides to take an unpaid internship knows what they are getting into. Getting coffee, doing mailings--that's all part of being an intern. No matter where you are. No one should be upset at the cards they were dealt, because those individuals always had the chance to fold.

natasha

I am all for paying interns, even if it's a token. When you pay, you feel obligated to get the most out of your interns--which ultimately means giving them the opportunity to do some value-added work (forcing you to properly mentor, coach, and teach).

It's the same as buying some gadgetry or winning it. When you pay, you take care.

WILLIAM GRIMM

The debate as to whether a student should receive compensation is moot and not morally decided by others. The arrangement is between the employer and the student and no one else. This is true between any two parties, buyers, sellers, employers, employees, etc. If it's not favorable to you, then take another path.

Ummm...France, the country where it takes an act of God to fire an incompetent employee.

Adam Pearle

"But there's no shortage of applicants, because ostensibly glitzy industries know there will always be a surplus of willing--make that desperate--kids to take advantage of."

Distorted logic here. There's no shortage of internships available, because there will always be a surplus of kids applying for them. There's no shortage of applicants, because those kids see value in internships beyond short-term monetary inducements.

alice

I was told my friend's son was offered an unpaid internship for two weeks in a coffee shop this summer. He is only 13 years old--just graduated elementary school.

Is this legal?

KH

It doesn't sound legal. Why the heck does a 13 year old need a two-week internship at a coffee shop anyway?

In general, interns should be paid. Most interns are already talented individuals who strive to prepare themselves, and that they don't even get a minimum wage is insulting.

Gord McG

Most jobs are learning experiences for your next job. Does that mean you shouldn't be paid for that work either? Of course not. Unpaid internships are exploitation, plain and simple.

Mojo

While it isn't unfair to offer an unpaid internship to a consenting and informed student, especially because generally the alternative is usually "no internship at all" before "paid internship," it is highly immoral.

Public policy groups that don't pay interns inevitably exclude the lower class. They thus take the entire country's social choice into their own hands to perpetuate generations of middle-upper class policy experts who lack lower-class perspectives crucial to national development.

News industry internships similarly ensure future broadcasters who think that OJ Simpson getting arrested again is news while illegal bank eviction tactics in poor neighborhoods is not.

While these are two particularly important examples, the negative impact of discouraging internships for the lower class exist everywhere.

But then again who cares about their God-given right to social choices in this right-wing country anyway?

T.Ruth

Internships exist for profit-making reasons. Just think about it. Many years ago, college students were "hired with pay" for summer jobs. Those "jobs" were often "in their field" of study and paid at least minimum wage to gain experience. I'm not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg. Perhaps it was the colleges who realized they could work with businesses to hire interns during the academic year. They could charge that student for tuition even with them absent from campus. That freed up classroom space for another paying student. Perhaps in a "foreign exchange" program. Mmmm. Double the money for one "slot." The employers soon caught on that they could now offer students work without pay. Another great deal for them. Not only did it sift out the "economically disadvantaged" from their work force, but they could now gain summer workers at no cost. Kids from upper income families on the most part. One way to "sift out the riff-raff" (sarcasm). Now, not only were advantaged youth now able to work for free due to mom and dad's deep pockets, but paying summer jobs related to student's majors quickly evaporated on the most part. Some exceptions: banking, investing and a few others.

I don't know why there hasn't been an uproar over this abuse of labor. In the late 1960s, if college kids were told they'd have to work for free either for their summers, or during the school year (instead of attending classes they paid for) they would have been marching on Washington.

Amazing how this insidious practice took hold and no one questioned the ethics.

Now if a student wishes to "shadow" someone in a profession that's another story, but once they start doing "actual work" they should be paid.

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