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 getting a fair trade-off. 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.