why unpaid internships should be legal

featured-on-usnLast month’s ruling that Fox Searchlight broke the law by not paying its interns has reignited a battle that has already been brewing over unpaid internships.

While federal law has long prohibited unpaid internships unless the net benefit is to the intern, not the employer, the reality is that unpaid internships that don’t meet that standard are commonplace and in many industries are a normal part of gaining experience that prepares candidates for paying work in the field. Unpaid internships aren’t going away any time soon, lawsuits or no lawsuits.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I argue that unpaid internships should be legal. You can read it here.

(And I know that many of you disagree with this viewpoint. I just ask that you read the article before arguing back!)

{ 364 comments… read them below }

  1. The IT Manager

    I’ve never given it much thought and don’t have a strong opinion. You make good points as I would expect, but I noticed that arguement could be stretched to go perhaps argue the other side.

    So the choice isn’t between paying interns and not paying them; it’s between making it easier for students and recent graduates to get a certain kind of work experience that will eventually lead to paying work or making it harder for them.

    Some people can’t afford to work for free. In that case, allowing unpaid internships favor those people who can afford to work for free which would also seem to skee toward recent grads who can continue to rely on someone else to pay all or some of their bills.

    1. Kerry

      I agree with this. It’s a major problem in the UK – internships go to the children of wealthy families, who can afford to work for nothing for weeks. It entrenches income inequality and means that industries like the media, which use a lot of unpaid internships, are made up almost entirely of the upper middle class and above.

      1. Xay

        Exactly. An unpaid internship in DC, San Francisco, Chicago, or New York City is impossible for a lot of college students and new graduates. I understand Alison’s position, but in practice many unpaid internships function as gatekeepers and restrict certain professions to certain socioeconomic classes.

      2. Duschamp

        Paying interns doesn’t fix this disparity though. Particularly in highly competitive arenas, when there is no opportunity to distinguish ones self through hard work, hiring preferences go towards the known quantity rather than the unknown. In distinguishing between two equally inexperienced candidates, the question becomes one of who you know rather than how hard you work. While I can’t overcome the question of what circles I/my parents can afford to run in, with hard work I can potentially match or even overcome these barriers.

        1. Anonymous

          But you’ll never get to show how hard you work if you can’t afford to take the internship.

          1. Duschamp

            Yes and no. People frequently neglect that internships can be undertaken alongside paid employment. Admittedly this may not prove financially feasible for all economic situations. My point is merely that a system in which there are more opportunities for entry is fairer (not perfect, but more fair) than a system which doesn’t.

            1. twentymilehike

              People frequently neglect that internships can be undertaken alongside paid employment. Admittedly this may not prove financially feasible for all economic situations.

              I just had to chime in on this … all through college I had to work multiple jobs to support myself and completely dismissed internships for this reason. However, at one point I was able to take an internship that was simply 6 Saturdays over a two month period, and was related to the IRS. It was unpaid, I received one college credit, but it made way more impact on my resume than any of my part-time retail jobs.

              I don’t think a good internship is like a job at all, it’s more like a class, or work-study. At my actual jobs I had a whole different set of expectations. The point of the internship was to learn in a real-life environment.

            2. annie

              Yeah, I don’t get why people always say this either – I worked three part time jobs while going to college full time and I always had an internship going on too. All of my friends also worked part time jobs while interning at the same time. I don’t know anyone who just interned for free and did nothing else.

              1. Anonymous

                Depending on the field, some internships are much more demanding hours-wise. If you’re working a 60-hour/week unpaid internship, or are working an internship where you are on call and/or have irregular and unpredictable hours, you may not be able to take other part-time jobs.

            3. Melissa

              Full time unpaid internships over summers cannot realistically be done alongside work, not enough work to pay the rent on a DC or New York apartment.

        2. Sam

          These are really two separate issues. Yes, there are internships in the corporate or law world (for example) that will favor children of family friends, etc. Paid internships won’t overcome that barrier (and in fact, I would argue that paid internships are probably already more accessible to “known quantities”). Consider unpaid government internships, however. The UN is a good example, because they operate nominally on a merit/application basis but provide no salary, benefits, travel expenses, or living stipends for their interns. This system obviously favors economically privileged students.

        3. EvaR

          This is an older post, but I’d like to point out that the employer not paying the intern doesn’t necessarily mean that the intern couldn’t get paid. In my area, there is a program similar to an internship program for disabled workers that allows the state to pay companies to hire disabled workers for a 90 day trial period to see if they’re a good fit and if the job is workable with any accommodations they might need. There’s no reason that some kind of income based living expense program couldn’t exist that could allow young people to take internships they otherwise couldn’t afford.

      3. JM in England

        Seconded Kerry!

        I graduated during the last big recession in the early 90s. My course had an industrial placement year which had to be cancelled because the companies that used to supply them were cutting back. So I left uni in the classic no-experience-hence-no-job cycle, which took a year of determined job seeking to break (whilst living back at my parents) before find ing a company willing to take a chance with me.

      4. Ask a Manager Post author

        Unpaid internships are often 15-20 hours/week. You can do them and have a paying job at the same time; we’ve had plenty of people here comment in the past that they did exactly that, when they didn’t come from money at all.

        1. Felicia

          Could be regional, and vary by field, but I rarely come across unpaid internships that are any less than 40 hours/week. Id say maybe 10% of internships I come across are part time like that. I agree that if part time internships were common around here that you could work a paid job at the same time, but in my experience that’s not the case.

            1. twentymilehike

              Hmmm… I’ve always assumed that internships were part-time, but I have a feeling that I’ve not talked to enough people or looked around at internships enough. Mine was REALLY part time–only 1 day a week for 6 weeks, was advertised directly through my school, and ran by the department head.

              Has anyone proposed that internships should be paid if they are over a certain amount of hours, and they can be unpaid otherwise?

              1. Felicia

                I think that would be a really really good idea to restrict the number of hours an unpaid internship can be. Most internships I’ve seen or heard of people i know doing have been for 40+ hours a week so it varies by region and industry, and I think a restriction like that would benefit everyone.

                1. Jessa

                  I agree with this. An unpaid internship should not be full time and should hopefully allow someone who needs to also work to hold another job.

              2. Cat

                I thought there was a guideline on that. I think in DC, if it is full time it has to be paid.

                1. Felicia

                  There may be a guideline like that in DC,, but in Canada there is no such guideline and from what I understand from people I know, several states also have no such guideline. It would be an awesome guideline to be made universal though.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                Nope. I think that it the intern decides that the benefits are worth it to her (as many, many do), she shouldn’t be prohibited from it.

                1. Liz T

                  And just to clarify–this is regardless of whether the work involved meets the legal definition of an internship, correct?

                2. Mike C.

                  It’s not a fair choice if it’s your only option or you have been given bad information.

                  Furthermore, people aren’t allowed to choose to break the law, which is what the majority of these unpaid internships consist of.

        2. AnonyMouse28

          Many internships are full time (i.e. summer internships, and I know my employer hires significantly more summer interns than fall/winter ones, anecdotally speaking). What would you suggest for those students that have families to support and can’t afford to work two full time jobs to support their families? What about dependent care? What part-time job could somebody take that would allow them to work 15-20 hours a week for free and still pay rent and other necessary expenses?

          I suppose us poor folk could just elect not to sleep at night, though I think forcing such an unbelievable hardship on those that can least afford it as a condition of employment is a tough argument.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            There are plenty of people — many of them commenters here — who took unpaid internships at the same time as working a paying full-time or part-time job.

            1. AnonyMouse28

              And those people likely had resources that they didn’t discuss here (maybe they had a grandmother who could care for their kids, maybe they inherited a car, maybe they were able to live with their parents–I’m one of the latter). I’m not sure why you keep bringing that anecdote up–it isn’t really evidence that unpaid internships don’t disproportionately benefit the wealthy, and doesn’t change the reality that some people *can’t* work full time and take on an unpaid internship.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                I personally know people who struggled financially but found ways to do unpaid internships because they believed they would be a help with their career goals, and they were. It’s not rare.

                We all probably also know people who worked full-time while going to school, because they couldn’t afford to do it any other way. Similar thing. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly doable if you want it.

                1. Cat

                  The thing is though, the goal shouldn’t be that you have to be absolutely exceptional to succeed if you weren’t born with certain advantages.

                2. AnonyMouse28

                  “it’s certainly doable if you want it.”

                  This comment I think is emblematic of my concerns with the opposing arguments on this issue. This notion that those that can’t do it “don’t want it enough.”

                  I had to give up an unpaid internship with a federal agency because I couldn’t afford travel or housing on top of my financial commitments. I was privileged enough to be able to do a different internship locally and live at home with my parents, but that does NOT mean that I wasn’t unfairly penalized for my lack of resources, and it doesn’t mean that there are plenty of people who were not privileged with my set of resources that couldn’t intern at all.

                  Is it truly so difficult to understand that some people simply can’t afford to work for free, period?

                3. Ask a Manager Post author

                  Then they won’t. They’re not required to. It’s one of many things that can help make you a more competitive candidate, but there are plenty of others.

                  There are lots of things that people can’t or don’t do for all sorts of reasons, from leadership positions to extracurriculars to excelling at academics to volunteering. Not everyone can or will do all of these, and that’s not something that we need to legislate into equality either.

                4. AnonyMouse28

                  “Then they won’t. They’re not required to. It’s one of many things that can help make you a more competitive candidate, but there are plenty of others.”

                  Some college programs do require it, but that’s not really the point. The point is that you’re expecting a level of exceptionalism in poor students that you’re not expecting of those with the resources to freely take unpaid internships, and you’ve yet to provide any comparable opportunities (“i.e. plenty of others”) that a poor student could utilize that would provide equivalent hiring-power when it comes to being recruited for employment.

              2. Cat

                Right; as always with these things, the issue isn’t the exceptional person who managed to succeed despite the odds. Those people exist and we can recognize their accomplishments while still recognizing that in the aggregate a given system is set up to benefit the wealthy and privileged over those who aren’t.

                1. ThursdaysGeek

                  And not all of the wealthy and privileged who can take advantage of it are exceptional. Some are less exceptional than some of the poorer who can’t do an unpaid internship. Which means that the final pool in that career area could be less exceptional than if it were open to all.

            2. Mike C.

              But you need to justify why someone, regardless of means, should have to donate time and money to a for-profit enterprise to gain experience. It didn’t used to be like this, and plenty of companies pay their interns, so what justifies the free labor?

            3. Xay

              And there are plenty of people who have had to turn down unpaid internships because they couldn’t afford to do a 40 hour/week internship, hold down a job and pay for college credits. One anecdotal situation doesn’t nullify another.

            4. dejavu2

              “There are plenty of people — many of them commenters here — who took unpaid internships at the same time as working a paying full-time or part-time job.”

              Alison, I love you and this blog, but that argument is extremely problematic. Plenty of people throughout history have been exploited in all sorts of ways, but that fact in and of itself doesn’t inherently lend moral justification. I know that what you’re getting at is that it’s possible and can be done, but again, it’s possible to endure and survive a wide variety of economically oppressive realities – that doesn’t mean those realities are acceptable.

        3. AP

          This is my question/argument…I work in a very internship-heavy field where they are almost all unpaid and a very necessary barrier to entry for young graduates. I was fine with doing a few and they really helped me figure out what I wanted to do as a career and learn about the industry.

          However, they really are all 35-40 hours per week, if not more, which makes it really impossible for people for people to take them on without paying quite a bit of money for the experience and not working for at least 2-3 months.

          I work in an industry that is already (deservedly) criticized for skewing white/privileged/connected, and this policy reinforces that perception and fact, which is why I struggle with it. But perhaps what we need to rethink is less about the existence of internships themselves, and how to re-structure them to have more people working less hours, so they can try to get a part-time job on the side…

          1. Felicia

            I think internships as they are in many industries in many locations are not okay. If they really were always part time (my experience is the same as AP in terms of hours required), and if most people really could get a job after doing one for 4-6 months (rather than doing 3 or 4 internships) then maybe I could be ok with them. And there’s soooo much potential for abuse. I’m sure for every case like Fox Searchlight there are a hundred other companies doing the exact same thing that will never have to answer for it. I think in terms with the article, i may be able to agree for some industries but in my industry and location I couldn’t disagree more.

        4. Melissa

          I’m mainly thinking about unpaid summer internships, which are typically about 40 hours a week. When I was looking for summer internships in college and in grad school, a lot of them were full-time unpaid internships.

    2. Sali


      I agree with pretty much all that Alison wrote, but in the end this system works in favour of those who are ultimately more well off financially.

      I have friends who are struggling to pay the rent whilst interning and working a part time job at the same time – so they end up working 7 days a week for months on end!

      I am a recent graduate myself and I have always worked part time jobs or volunteered for experience. Plus I still live at home so can take advantage of having a lower rent to pay – but I am beginning to realise more and more that I am very much one of the lucky ones, especially since I only recently managed to bag myself a job without having to intern for free.

    3. Claire

      Agreed. I’m a recent grad and was far from underpriveleged (solidly middle class family, going into new SUV, not small house debt for my loans) but couldn’t afford to do an unpaid internship even from home (I didn’t own a car), much less one outside of commuting distance. And it’s exponentially harder for someone without the advantages I had.

      1. Jamie

        But you can say that about everything in life. Life will always be easier for those who have more money, and there will always be advantages that come with that.

        To me the argument that unpaid internships shouldn’t be legal because they are unfair to people who can’t afford to work for free would be like wanting to abolish college educations because some people have to work full time and can’t afford to go to school.

        I mean it’s easier to get and keep a job if you have reliable transportation – which puts people who don’t have cars and don’t live near public transit at a disadvantage as well…but that doesn’t mean it’s unfair for people to have cars.

        There are so many inequities in every single aspect of life, I really don’t see how this is any different.

        1. Claire

          Well, I don’t think that when we see a disparity, we should throw our hands in the air and say, “oh well, life isn’t fair!” Like in your example, yes, I would support better and broader public transportation service to help people who don’t/can’t have cars have better access to work. I don’t think it’s about outlawing X or Y…I know plenty of people who profited a lot from unpaid internships, and I don’t think I would permaban them, just saying that it’s worth talking about and worth doing something about. For example, my school’s career center had a few cars that were available to be reserved by students doing internships for credit during the school year. That’s something relatively small for an institution that’s very helpful to a student. I think that there are definitely things organizations could consider to offer more options so that more people have opportunities to gain experience. Not every company will be able to, but offering more opportunities to a more diverse group of people is a good thing, IMO.

        2. Xay

          The problem is that it clearly is not impossible to pay your interns – plenty of industries do. I work in public health for heavens sake and short of working for a small community based non-profit, almost all internships are paid. What are those institutions doing (and STEM fields and others) that Fox Searchlight and Conde Nast can’t?

          1. De Minimis

            In accounting, the major employers do pay interns, but it’s a little different because most of the time they will offer them a full-time position at the conclusion of the internship. As you can imagine, competition was and is fierce for these positions.

            At my former job they had winter and summer interns…the winter interns usually did more as far as actual work and got a better picture of what it might be like as a full-time employee.

          2. Emma

            Where did you do your internship?! I interned in public health (two non-profits and a state health department) and never found a paid one. Granted, it might be in my geographic area – where the costs of doing business meant that they were so tight they refused to pay interns.

            1. Xay

              I hired interns in Florida and I worked with an internship/fellowship federal program at CDC.

              1. Emma

                If you’re talking of the fellowship programs I’m thinking of, those are for people who’ve already graduated with their bachelor’s or master’s degrees (PHAP and PHPS, respectively and not including very exclusive ones like CSTE or EIS). These are full-time, paid, benefitted jobs with work plans to ensure skills development. They’re not the sort that I think of when I think of internships…although interestingly, these same fellowships benefit from the exceptionalism typically demonstrated via unpaid internships. Hm, interesting.

                1. Xay

                  Which is why I separated interships from fellowships. There are many paid CDC and public health fellowships that are full time jobs but there are also several internship programs that do provide a stipend and living expenses for undergraduate students through partnerships with universities as well as the traditional federal internship program that is now adminstered by Pathways for highschool and college students.

                  I think that any highly competitive internship/fellowship program is going to slant towards people with socioeconomic privileges – PHAP had 4400 applications for about 130 slots and a byzantine application process – that’s not accessible to someone who is unfamiliar or attends a college that doesn’t typically send students to those programs. The US education system has built in inequality based on SES down to preschool. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to address it.

        3. Flynn

          If it’s reasonably workable to have either option, then it’s worth pursuing the one that is healthier for society as a whole, even if it means a bit of painful change. Restricting access to an elite group of ‘haves’ tends not to lead to growth and diversity and good feeling.

          It’s like basic education and healthcare and voting rights. They’re all basic fundamental things, but they had to be brought IN, despite previous systems working just fine for the ones who could access those advantages. And sure, you could charge for them, and there’s the whole user pays argument, but most people have a line at which they think it’s ridiculous to be restricting something to the ones that can afford it.

          1. Flynn

            Besides which, unpaid internships just seems like a system that’s incredibly open to abuse, especially given how endemic it seems to be.

        4. Anonymous


          Using some of this logic, it’s unfair that some jobs pay more for doing the same work as another position and should be legislated until they do. It’s unfair that some colleges/universities have a prestigious cachet that gives those wealthy kids an unfair boost when they’re looking for work. (And the poor kids who got a scholarship to said schools don’t prove anything.)

          If I may quote: “Life isn’t fair, princess. Anyone who says different is selling something.”

    4. Waerloga

      I agree with all of the above.

      Interns must be paid, perhaps not as much as an entry position (and actually I know it’s not as much as an entry position because I’m working with co-op students who get about half of what I earn).

      However it should be a learning position (translation from theoretical into practical) and not a source of free labour. It’s like punishing the unemployed for being unemployed, with the best time for job searching is while you are employed…

      Still boggles my mind…. (and Canada (Happy Canada day) doesn’t allow unpaid internships, and the CRA keeps a good eye on volunteers as well)

      Take care


      1. Felicia

        Actually I’m in Canada, and while the vast majority of unpaid internships are actually illegal, there are thousands of them in Canada, and thousands of Canadian young people that are doing unpaid internships, because if you want to get into certain fields there is no other choice.

        1. Waerloga

          And most are because of ignorance, on both sides (because it so prevalent south of us, and it’s assumed to be a standard business practice).

          Just recently in BC, (and my son just called to tell me that in BC, interns must be paid, but not in all of Canada…yet!)(Guess we share the same tastes in Blogs) HootSuite had to pay back wages to their Interns, and there’s a case against Bell Canada regarding the same issue.

          Take care


          1. Felicia

            I’m in Ontario so maybe that’s the difference – I heard about the case against Bell , I hope it works out well and sets a precedent. Almost every major newspaper and magazine in Toronto also uses unpaid interns. (or pays their interns with a stipend of less than minimum wage).

            I think most people let in go unchallenged, at least when they are the unpaid intern, is because we want the job, we want the good recommendation, and if we don’t have 3-4 internships we’ll never get the job so we don’t want to rock the boat.

            I’m mostly supportive of unpaid internships if you can get a job after only doing one, and that one is while you’re still a student – but after people graduate and have one internship, they’re going to have a hard time without doing one or two more.

            Happy Canada Day!

            1. Alicia

              I’m curious – what industries are you in? I always read these blogs and think “oh it must be an American thing” but you’re both in Canada. I don’t know any friends that did internships (my experience is in STEM).

              1. Felicia

                I am in Public Relations, where unpaid internships run rampant, and all my friends have in my program and similar programs have done one, but I also know unpaid internships are equally common in Canada in publishing, editing, film, fashion, journalism, marketing , fundraising and graphic design. Sometimes I wish I had the abilities and inclination for an STEM field to avoid this whole mess. I have a lot of friends from highschool in a STEM field and while they didn’t do internship exactly, they had paid co op terms where they made more than I can probably expect to make in a full time paid job.

                I live in Toronto which happens to be among the worst culprit for unpaid internship, but they exist nation wide. My friend just finished one in Halifax.

                1. Alicia

                  Interesting, thanks for the info. Most of my friends are in STEM so I guess my demographic is slightly skewed. Yeah the co-op terms can be pretty helpful and is definitely something I would go back and do if I had a time-machine.

              2. Waerloga

                And my field is (currently) cancer research (Vancouver), and my manager gains the co-ops from UBC, SFU, and BCIT.

                Last go round she had over 50 applicants for 2 co-op positions. It’s a good rotation, we send them on lots of mandatory training and the research lectures are top notch, and they learn/perform basic to advanced lab techniques so it’s a win- win situation. And they work very very hard.

                Take care


    5. Evilduck

      I’m so glad this was the first comment because this was what immediately popped into my head. I manage an internship program for students from communities that are underrepresented in my industry and we have so many success stories of interns who have gone on to accomplish quite a bit in their field. Many of them wouldn’t have been able to do so if our internship didn’t pay for all travel and housing expenses, provide scholarships and a competitive salary. Several of our students send most of their salary home to support their family. If their choice was between an unpaid internship in their area of study or working at McDonalds so they could help support their family, they would pick the money every time. Please don’t make students who are not from affluent backgrounds make such a difficult decision.

    6. Anonymous

      I read the article and I agree, but I also agree with IT Manager. My son graduated from University a couple of years ago. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, literally (anyone from Washington state knows the one I mean). The only internship he could get was an unpaid one in the state capital; it would have been great, except he couldn’t afford to live there for 2 months with no income, and I couldn’t afford to pay the thousands that it would have cost to support him for that summer in addition to the apartment we were already paying for, 5 hours across the state.

      He is a very smart, hardworking kid, but he still remains under-employed today and I’m guessing that the fact that we couldn’t afford an unpaid internship was part of the problem. :( I don’t think that we should do away with them at all; I just wish there was a way to level the playing field.

    7. LisaD

      Precisely. An unpaid internship isn’t for the hardest workers or the most talented. It’s for those who have some means of financial support besides the fruit of their own labors.

    8. Anonymous

      I agree. In college, I worked 2 part-time jobs and although my family would have loved to help me financially, they were unable to. I had to turn down several offers for unpaid internships b/c I couldn’t intern and still pay my bills.

      1. LMW

        Same here. I was lucky enough to find a paid internship.
        Also, as a student, it’s hard enough to find jobs flexible enough to work with class schedules. I could barely get enough hours as it was. If I’d had to give up paid shifts to make time for unpaid work, on top of a full class schedule, I don’t think I could have found other time to work (and I’d have to give up other activities like volunteering or leadership positions on campus, etc., which are also resume builders).

    9. Melissa

      This is my major problem with unpaid internships. Part of it is personal – I remember really wanting a State Department internship in college, but they are primarily unpaid and I couldn’t afford to work for free over the summer. Nobody was going to pay my rent (in D.C., no less) and living expenses while I worked for free. So I worked as a summer camp counselor because it paid my rent, rather than working in government which is what I really wanted to do.

      I don’t personally have anything against the idea of unpaid internships in general. My main problem with them is the unintended consequence that they give a leg up to the children of the wealthy, who can afford to pay their children’s living expenses while they get the connections and experience that their less well-off peers can’t afford because nobody is paying their rent.

    1. AnonHR

      I don’t know anyone who had their internship turn into a full time job, but internships can be difference between being in the yes and no piles when sending in applications. The job market is still in the employers favor so much so that it’d be irresponsible for them to hire someone with no experience when there are plenty of experienced candidates available. Getting that experience on your resume is a very real benefit.

      1. Liz T

        The study Rebecca linked to measured success in terms of “at least one job offer.” So, it’s not necessarily about internships turning directly into jobs. The study suggests that unpaid internships do not increase hireability.

    2. annie

      I think this varies by field. In the arts and entertainment industry, there are absolutely no paid internships, and no one gets a full time job without having done at least a few internships. I got my job this way, as did the last three people my company hired.

  2. Anon.

    The problem with unpaid internships that was not addressed in your article, is that universities often make internships a graduation requirement, which means that the student has to pay for the credit hours. So not only are interns working for “free,” (in terms of dollars, not skills being gained) they are actually paying money to work for free.

    My issue with unpaid internships is not with the companies that don’t pay the interns, it’s with the universities that charge students the credit hours for being an intern.

    Its like a double whammy. Work for free AND pay money in order to work for free.

    1. Tina Career Counselor

      I administer a one-credit internship class at an urban university. We don’t “require” students take this class, we simply make it available as a resource for students who want to participate in internships where the employer requires that they get credit. While not every student can afford to do so, in some cases students would not be able to do the internship otherwise.

      I definitely sympathize for students who find themselves in that situation, and have the perception that they are paying to work for free. Frustrating as it is, they are really paying for the “credit”. No university that I know is in the habit of giving “academic” credit for activities that have no affiliation with the university and for all we know, have no academic merit. In fact, students get credit for the homework assignments that they submit in relation to the internship, much like other courses.

    2. Chinook

      That is what happened to me when I earned my B.Ed. I paid for 3 practicums and 2 of them required so much prep work that I was unable to do it, my other studies and my part-time jobs at the same time. But, atleast with it being combined with university, I had scholarships and student status for discounts and other things. As well, we were supposed to have reports submitted by our supervisors (who were paid for is to do their work), so atleast there was a way to verify something educational was happening. And even though every class had the horror story of one supervising teacher just giving the intern the class and never supervising them, I can’t think of a more effective way to learn how to be a teacher with real students (not just role playing situations where my classmates were always offended when I role-played a bad behaving teen student).

    3. Oxford Comma

      I had issues with this concept on a philosophical level while I was in library school, but I did two practica nonetheless. It’s not so much about paying to work for free as it is paying for the opportunity to gain experience and to meet valuable contacts. I can’t speak to other industries, but in my field, entry level candidates with experience almost always outweigh the ones who just went to class.

    4. dejavu2

      My law school had a program through which you could get credit hours for unpaid internships. The option actually existed to help low income students – if you were receiving credit hours for your summer internship, then you could get a Federal education loan to cover your living expenses.

  3. Bryce

    Note: somewhat long post ahead.

    This article reminds me of an economics course in college I took where the professor explained how raising the minimum wage (and having a minimum wage at all), while intended to be helpful, was actually harmful. By forcing employers to pay employees more than what their work was worth, raising the minimum wage meant increasing unemployment, because, to make a long story short, making employers have to pay more for hiring meant less hiring.
    In a similar way, forcing employers to pay interns will mean fewer internship opportunities, which will make it harder for college students to ultimately find jobs.

    Which brings me to another point your article raises, but doesn’t come right out and say: Our colleges are not doing a very good job of teaching their students, for lack of a better way of saying, how work works. I don’t know whether they used to be better at that, or whether they never were all that good at it, but that’s one big reason why internships are so important.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Jamie

      By forcing employers to pay employees more than what their work was worth, raising the minimum wage meant increasing unemployment, because, to make a long story short, making employers have to pay more for hiring meant less hiring.

      And by paying more than the value of the work, the costs are passed on to the public (even if the company doesn’t directly service the public – it’s a domino effect) so the people not getting hired are now paying more for the goods they still need.

      There are no easy answers to this, and I know it’s not a popular sentiment, but while the minimum wage laws are well meaning if it’s for work which doesn’t add at least that value the costs do get passed along to society so while people make more they can do less with it. It really is a vicious cycle.

      1. FD

        I also don’t think it ends up being of much benefit in the long run, in the sense that if you’re living on the edge, you buy from the cheapest possible providers: Wal-Mart and so on. And they pay their workers minimum wage or close to it. So when you increase minimum wage, even if the person buying is paid more, everything also *costs* more, because the labor costs of the low-cost provider increases.

      2. Tracy

        But minimum wage is only $7.25 or $290.00 a week for fulltime work! What job could possibly be worth less than that?

        1. Jamie

          Because that doesn’t buy anything and it’s not a decent standard of living – I absolutely agree with that.

          To use an illustration most of us are familiar with – Rob Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke show in the early 60’s …the character made 28K a year and Carl Reiner has said in many interviews that they were so careful to make sure his home and lifestyle were what someone in his position could afford. Which was a lovely house, his wife didn’t work, and a comfortable but not ridiculously affluent living.

          You can’t do any of that for 28K a year now. Because everything costs more…costs go up so you need more. My parent’s bought the house in which I was raised in 1959 for $35K. We sold it 38 years later when my mom passed for well over 400K.

          Inflation is a complex issue and due to many factors, but it is a catch-22 in that the well meaning response to that…raise the mandatory labor costs…will always be following by an increase in the cost of goods and services. There are no easy answers to this – they are complex issues because our problems would not be solved by doing away with the minimum wage. It’s a small subset of people for whom that’s an overpayment – very small…but raising it more and more isn’t the panacea that some would like it to be.

          1. Carmen

            “…a comfortable but not ridiculously affluent living.” That’s a relative statement though. How does one define for all people what is comfortable and what is affluent? A 28K income depends on where you are living, how many dependents you have, how you spend your money, and what your lifestyle is like.

      3. Schnauz

        “And by paying more than the value of the work, the costs are passed on to the public …”

        I have no real historical knowledge about why we implemented a min wage, but isn’t the idea that ANY work is worth the minimum wage? It doesn’t matter if you’re shredding paper, emptying trash cans, picking grapes or pressing a button 50 times an hour … it’s all worth a “minimum” amount of money. If an employer doesn’t think it’s work worth 40 hours, then they can pay someone 10 or 15 or 20 hours. All costs are basically passed on to the public, this is nothing new.

        Also, it’s not like employers are making up work for their interns to do (unless they’re dysfunctional and that’s not the fault of the intern system). If the interns weren’t there, then someone else – someone else getting paid – would have to do. So, in the absence of an intern, that work IS valued at a paid wage.

        1. Jamie

          Work has value (as distinguished from effort which may or may not) but not all work has the same value…and any wage set by an outside source runs the risk of some work being under that.

          It’s about cost of goods sold (although the same applies to services).

          Say it takes me an hour to make a widget. My employer sells that widget for $5.00. Paying me $8.25 (plus overhead roughly calced at 1.5…so my labor cost is $12.38) to make that widget just cost them 7.38 . In order for it to be worth their while to sell widgets and employee me they now need to sell this widget that I make for 12.38 + material costs + their profit margin.

          Obviously this is a simple example for illustration – but the point is costs of goods sold is material, labor, and overhead and a company HAS to charge enough to recoup that and make a profit on top. If not they will go out of business. So when an outside party dictates how much they pay for labor they are dictating one factor in that equation which drives up costs for everyone…including those making minimum wage when they go shopping.

          I am not advocating taking advantage of labor – people should absolutely be paid their worth but the value is determined by the value of their work. If you set a minimum salary where everyone in the US now has to make 100K a year there would still be people struggling to buy food and shelter because the costs would have to increase to cover those salaries…or all suppliers of goods and services would go under. The minimum wage is a smaller scale of that very thing.

          1. thene

            But productivity in America has been rising for decades while wages have remained flat. The hourly productivity of American workers is very high, and has no connection to what we get paid.

      4. AnonyMouse28

        No no no. Costs are getting ‘passed along’ to employees not because their work doesn’t add that amount of value, but because companies are choosing to make record profits and punt those profits back to their shareholders and senior management while stagnating wages. Have you seen the numbers on wage stagnation in this country? We’re producing MORE and making LESS in effective wages. That has nothing to do with companies being ‘forced to pay more for the value of the work’ in the form of minimum wage, for goodness sake.


        1. Liz T

          THANK YOU. There’s been too much emphasis on free market this and trickle down that, with too many blind eyes turned towards corporate profits, which are at an all-time high.

        2. Jamie

          I just wanted to address this, and to be clear I am absolutely an advocate of people being paid appropriately and fairly – I do not agree with unethical business practices – I just don’t believe there is a minimum amount of pay that’s ethical because it varies depending on the position.

          But profit is the reason businesses exist. Period. Owners of small businesses can and often do treat their employees very well, but if the business didn’t turn a profit it wouldn’t exist. And yes, even large profits, because there is a tremendous amount of risk and stress involved in running a business. Many business owners tie up their own personal finances in the beginning or in rough patches to maintain the business…this keeps people employees.

          Stocks are bought so shareholders make a profit. No one buys shares in businesses who are losing money and will continue to do so.

          Profit is not an ugly word – it’s the point. If a business is treating people unfairly that’s wrong regardless of whether they are operating in the red or pulling in billions.

          Businesses will charge what the market will bear and will pay what the labor demands – if my job is worth $X and my company has a banner year it’s great if they want to share some of that in employee bonuses…but that doesn’t inherently make my job worth more money and the owners of my company are entitled to the profit because they are the ones taking the risk.

          1. Editor

            Risk varies from business to business. The risk a person takes founding a manufacturing business is different than the risk a person takes founding an insurance brokerage, for instance. And a lot of new business formation is in service businesses, some of which take much less capital investment.

            There’s been a documented growth in income inequality. The market doesn’t set equitable pay rates, it sets minimal pay rates, and until workers push back through unionization or law (minimum wage, other regulations regarding working conditions, safety, etc.), some employers will pay as little as necessary for as much work as possible. Consider the case of Lily Ledbetter. In the case of larger businesses, such as publicly traded Fortune 500 companies, the degree of risk facing highly paid workers at the top is not nearly as great as the small business owner’s risk, and the larger the company, the less likely it is that the top people in the company are 200 times more responsible for the success of the company than the hundreds or thousands of employees below the corporate level. This varies, of course — someone like Steve Jobs arguably made a major contribution at Apple, but was Jack Welch as valuable at GE? I’d say Welch was not, despite the cult of personality he encouraged. In the case of GE and similar companies, I would say the company should not be allowed to hire unpaid interns when the CEO’s pay could be reduced enough to provide salaries for the interns at little or no detriment to the CEO.

            Sure, profit is an important part of business economics. But individuals take on some risk, too, when they take a job. They risk bad management, layoffs, the loss of professional reputation if something beyond their control goes badly at work, furloughs, damage to family life by job demands that are excessive, and lack of opportunity to advance, among other things. Is the possible reward of an unpaid internship worth the risk? If the study cited by the Atlantic is accurate, the answer may be no.

            1. Jamie

              That’s a very fair point on the differences in investment. Coming from manufacturing I’ve seen SMBs – mostly family owned – which were started with enormous capital outlays in equipment…and when the business fails there are losses so significant they just don’t bounce back. And others who run successful companies for generations…which I’ve never seen done without keeping a sharp eye on labor costs. It’s a huge factor.

              In my company, for example, no one makes minimum wage. Even the most entry level employee comes in higher than minimum – because while yes we track labor costs carefully we also understand that paying a fair wage is the cost of doing business if you hire good people and want to build a great team.

              But that all goes back to the profit equation. It makes sense to pay well and get good people who want to stay because while labor dollars may be higher, your rework and QC dollars will be much lower so it’s still a net gain.

              And I do agree workers take a risk, too…but if my company goes under I need to look for another job, whereas if it were my company that goes under I’d be risking my own personal finances as well – which for me (admittedly I am a ridiculously risk averse person) would be untenable.

              1. Editor

                Employees who own stock in their own employer take on similar risks as owners, though, without as much control over the business. People who worked at Enron lost their life savings when the company’s dealings were exposed. People who had their 401(k) funds full of Rite Aid stock when the top executive officers were prosecuted saw their retirement savings tank, too. I think part of the reason there was so much stock is that it was used as a match, but there may have been an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, too, that included some matching or profit sharing. The 401(k) isn’t protected the way ERISA regulates pensions. Company executives who encourage employees to become stockholders while fiddling with the books are pretty low.

                I believe there are now limits on such stock ownership so ordinary employees don’t loose as much to risks they can’t control.

    2. mel

      My only small thought on this is that it reminds me of the time before the minimum wage was last raised, my employers stupidly posted a congratulatory email on the wall that read something like: “Congratulations and thanks to all, as we have made a profit of $27,000 dollars last week!”

      I don’t know what the point of posting such a notice for us bottom-feeding scum other than to make us feel bitter that we work sweaty, stressful hours so that our absentee owner now makes nearly three times my annual income merely by existing. I don’t really buy the whole “oh they raised the minimum wage, we can’t afford new workers, too bad!” schtick.

      1. T-riffic

        Workers of the world unite! I’m only half joking. Your story reminds me of where I used to work. They would make record-high sales (which were obsessively recorded and added up at the end of each day) but then wring their hands about how many hours people were working.

        1. Editor

          One of my relatives worked for a wholesaler that was privately owned. The owner called all the employees in on the carpet in a mass meeting the year the economy tanked to complain that he’d wanted to buy a new, big screen television (his third), and hadn’t been able to because they were all bad employees and had hurt him so, and they needed to understand how unhappy he was he couldn’t watch this television he wanted because they’d been so lazy and nonproductive. The owner hadn’t had to reduce his salary, just the extra cut he took from sales, and the business still employed every one of his family members. The owner watched every business expense closely and was pretty much a miser at work, but then expected employees to be motivated by parties at his home that revealed how high on the hog he was living.

    3. Anonymous

      Wow, I couldn’t disagree more. Did your economics professor study pre-labor movement America at all? Income inequality is a real problem, and allowing the “market” i.e. the wealthy to determine how much of their profits go to the people that make their profits possible and how much goes in their pockets…that’s a terrible way to govern. The employers may get to determine how much work is worth, but society (i.e. the people, including the poor and middle class) should determine minimum standards of decency because if left in the hands of a few, the many will always be exploited. If anything, we should be increasing the minimum wage, substantially. We don’t need a bunch of low wage jobs subsidized by the middle class so that the owning class can squeeze out every penny of profit.

    4. Cat

      By forcing employers to pay employees more than what their work was worth, raising the minimum wage meant increasing unemployment, because, to make a long story short, making employers have to pay more for hiring meant less hiring.

      Yeah, that’s not really true. There is some initial effect, but when you look at empirical data, it’s not anywhere near as strong as the theoretical models suggested. And in the long run, a healthy economy in which people aren’t starving in the streets because they’re being paid so little they can’t afford to eat increases opportunities across the board. What labor is “worth” is a fairly artificial construct, and leaving it to nothing other than (often distorted) market forces is not the best way to create a healthy economy.

      1. Anonymous

        Agreed. If that was true, Costco and Starbucks, both paying more than the minimum and offering benefits, would be going under. I don’t think either one is in any danger of that.

      2. Emily K

        “but when you look at empirical data, it’s not anywhere near as strong as the theoretical models suggested”

        Economics in a nutshell.

      3. Heather

        And if people aren’t earning a living wage, they have to turn to to social safety net (what’s left of it), which is paid for through our taxes. Classic example of privatizing the gains and socializing the losses.

        I do think it’s funny that people say that if workers can’t make ends meet on what employers are willing to pay, they should get another job – but they never say that if employers can’t pay their workers enough to live on, they should go into a different business.

    5. The IT Manager

      Our colleges are not doing a very good job of teaching their students, for lack of a better way of saying, how work works. I don’t know whether they used to be better at that, or whether they never were all that good at it, but that’s one big reason why internships are so important.

      I don’t know. I said below that I believe that many unpaid interns do work for free not so much learn something but in order to get a foot in the door in a desirable industry. I think that many of these internships don’t actually require anything beyond basic communication skills (which a student can learn in high school) and an understanding of office ettiquette which colleges should not have to teach in any class but on which the career center might should offer some helpful seminars.

      I’ll admit I absoultely screwed the pooch when I was asked to fill in to answer a business phone for the first time. I said “hello” like I did growing up for personal calls, but it only takes someone telling you once that the way the phones should be answered for a person to learn to say “business name. name speaking”.

    6. Mike C.

      The evidence for and against the minimum wage is incredibly mixed actually. For instance, your explanation doesn’t even take into account the fact that those extra people are spending that money (stimulating demand) or that employers hire based on demand. If we were to drop the minimum wage tomorrow, employers wouldn’t go on a sudden hiring spree, as their demand hasn’t changed.

      1. Editor

        Here’s an article about raising the minimum wage that notes that demand goes up when the minimum wage is raised because most of the money flows back into the economy (unlike CEO salaries, which don’t get immediately spent on groceries or other consumer goods):


        Felix Salmon has this to say about a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour:

        “First of all, most simply and most cleanly, it would immediately raise the incomes of millions of cash-strapped Americans — precisely the people who most need to be earning more than they’re making right now. A whopping 51 million people would benefit directly, along with 30 million who would benefit indirectly: these are enormous numbers.

        “Secondly, the cost to the government of putting billions of extra dollars into these workers’ hands would in fact be substantially negative: there’s a strong fiscal case for a $15 minimum wage. We currently spend $316 billion per year on programs designed to help the poor, with the lowest-income households receiving about $8,800 per year. Billions of those dollars would be saved as the workers in question saw their wages rise. And no longer would the likes of Walmart be able to take advantage of implicit government wage subsidies, whereby low-paid workers receive substantial top-up checks from Uncle Sam to supplement their direct income.”

        The minimum wage doesn’t just increase the cost of widgets, it also offsets assistance paid to the poor through tax dollars or tax breaks. Because increases in wages at the bottom are immediately spent, there’s also more demand in some categories. Factors like this make the reasoning about job losses due to minimum wage increases more complex, and studies of states that have higher-than-the-federal minimum wage don’t show that there’s rampant unemployment after a minimum wage increase (sorry, couldn’t find the citation for the story I read on this). If the minimum wage had been adjusted for inflation since the 1970s, apparently it would be over $20 an hour now.

  4. Alice

    Agreed with everything said here. I work in theater administration and the subject of unpaid internships and unpaid theater gigs has been discussed quite frequently. I benefited from unpaid part-time internships but I was only able to take them on because I had savings and no student loans.

    1. Liz T

      The first day of my first theatre internship, the bosses went around the room and asked us our interests and whether we had jobs. I was the only one who had no other job…and I never saw any of the others again. I was privileged to be in that room in the first place–but extra privileged that my parents were able to support me for the summer.

      The one paid theatre internship I ever had, which actually paid me enough to get by in its low-cost-of-living city, no longer exists. The new Artistic Director came in and got rid of the program entirely.

  5. AnonyMouse28

    I did indeed read the article (as I read all of your articles, or course!), but I’m absolutely one of those people that disagrees with you. I think that you’re doing the opposing argument a bit of a disservice by saying that “Opponents of unpaid internships like to argue that those interns are doing work that should be paid, and that they’re displacing paying jobs.” This is true, to a point, but an equally large part of the opposing argument is that unpaid internships perpetuate a class (and to a large extent race) barrier that perpetuates a homogeneous employment roster and restricts the ability for poor (and equally qualified) students to enter the workforce.

    Only people that can AFFORD to work for free have the luxury of getting an unpaid internship; this means that the slate of new graduates with internship experience (and, as you yourself mentioned, the slate of new-hires due to that internship experience) remains overwhelmingly upper-middle-class and (to a large extent) white, because they have the resources to be able to work for free for three-to-six months at a time.

    I absolutely agree with you that new graduates with internship experiences are more likely to be hired. That’s a significant advantage that a significant portion of new graduates cannot access. They have rent to pay, or families to support, and continuing unpaid (and for the most part illegal) internships will only perpetuate a significant class divide in white collar employment. Paying interns an hourly wage would mitigate that, by allowing those bright students with great grades that have the misfortune of being born poor to take part in these programs as well, and I don’t think that anybody can argue that they have as much of a right to build work experience as the wealthy student who can comfortably live at home while working for free.

    I also disagree with the claim that if employers are forced to pay interns, they’ll instead employers hire new employees. You know how expensive on-boarding a new hire is, from benefits on down the line. Adding a $10/Hr part-time wage (like my industry does) for interns is not equivalent to the expense of hiring a new, permanent employee. The closest equivalent I can find is hiring a “temp,” but I can’t imagine why an employer would choose to hire a temp over an intern that will a) expect considerably less, b) does not come with temp agency ‘fees’ and c) can prove to be a trial run for a potential new hire going forward. That being said, there may well be some employers who choose to go that route, and that’s there right. But for every employer that goes that route, there’s an employer (like mine) that will choose to implement an hourly wage, and the diversity of our workforce will benefit as a result.

    However, I do want to say THANK YOU for not falling back on the ridiculous arguments I’ve seen (including in the New York Times *eyeroll*) that some have made a la’ “millennials are just so entitled these days!” It’s a ludicrous argument, one that completely ignores the very real socioeconomic implications in unpaid internships. Your argument was a sound one, and while I disagree I appreciate that you made it in a way that didn’t disparage an entire generation!

    1. Jamie

      remains overwhelmingly upper-middle-class

      I am sure the vast majority of college and recent grads who live at home are not upper middle class. The vast majority of my kids friends are still home (early 20’s) and there is a vast range from people quite well off and working class and everything in between.

      I asked this question upthread, but I’m not sure how this differs from the fact that some people need to work full time and can’t take the time/money to go to college. No one argues that it’s wrong that college gives an advantage, when that’s not affordable for everyone either.

      1. Del

        Just because someone lives with their parents doesn’t mean they don’t need an income. Many of those recent grads living at home are contributing (sometimes significantly) to household expenses, most of them are paying student loans, etc etc. “Lives with parents = does not need an income” is not true.

        1. Abigail

          AMEN! I started paying rent/food money to my mom when I was 18 in addition to my own expenses (cell, car insurance, gas, etc.) Many parents cannot afford to support another adult with adult bills. I know my mom would’ve still been able to afford to house and feed me, but she couldn’t contribute at all to my personal bills, nor would she if she was able. She wanted to teach me money management and responsibility. No wonder so many young people just moving away from home can’t manage their money!

      2. AnonyMouse28

        College does give an advantage, and I imagine the same people fighting for paid internships also fight for tuition reform and low-cost/free tuition to public universities to grant all students the same opportunities, regardless of background (I know I do).

        That being said, there is a SUBSTANTIAL portion of the college population (especially in public schools) that work and attend school at the same time. So if your argument is “well since most college kids already have the resources to work for free, then they should” you’re basically completely ignoring a large (and the fastest growing) segment of the college population.

        1. Jamie

          That is not my argument – I work with a lot of people who also go to school. My point was just that there are still people who cannot afford to go to college. There are people who absolutely cannot go to college because of finances and not being able to afford the time due to having to work as much as they can.

          And I am truly trying to understand why it’s a different argument – some people cannot afford to go to college so the people that do go will have an advantage. Some people can’t afford to do a unpaid internship so those that can will have an advantage. It seems like the same argument to me.

          1. AnonyMouse28

            So what if they’re the same argument? We should be working to overhaul tuition in this country too. That doesn’t mean we can’t fix THIS issue now, in the meantime.

            “Everybody should be able to afford to go to college, but some people can’t and we should be working to change that. Everybody should be able to afford to do an internship, but some people can’t and we should be working to change that.”


          2. Xay

            They are the same argument – which is why people are saying that we need tuition reform, financial aid/student loan reform and to look at how a college education is accessible. I’m not sure who you are disagreeing with.

          3. KellyK

            I think the difference is that unpaid internships are a huge exception to a general rule. Normally, if someone does work for you, you have to pay them. Internships are exempt from this because of the experience they provide, but if they’re actually *worsening* social problems, it’s worth considering whether they should get that exception.

            It’s not that they should cease to exist just because of the unfairness, but that anything that goes so far against the standard rules and is so prone to exploitation should be required to prove that it actually is a net benefit.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              This, to me, is the strongest argument I’ve heard on this side of it — thanks for making it.

              I don’t believe it’s the mission of labor laws to minimize inequality or anything else people have been arguing here, but looking at what should warrant an exception to existing laws is a strong argument.

              1. Cat

                So that’s just a fundamental difference. A lot of us do believe that’s a purpose of labor laws. There’s not going to be a right or wrong answer there; it’s ultimately a philosophical question that people will disagree on.

              2. Melissa

                So what is the purpose of labor laws, if not to minimize inequality and exploitation?

          4. Heather

            I usually agree with almost every word you say, so I guess there had to be an exception sometime ;)

            The whole point of Pell Grants, government loans, even the GI Bill, is to make college an option for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it, so that they don’t have that disadvantage all their lives.

            It’s impossible to completely eliminate inequality. In some areas that’s perfectly fine – we don’t need to level the playing field so that everyone can afford a sports car or a big-screen TV. Those are luxuries and no one ever died from lack of a Ferrari. But in areas that have a permanent effect on the quality of people’s lives, like education or healthcare, we should do our best as a society to distribute resources enough to let people at the bottom access at least a basic level of services. No one should die from cancer because they can’t afford a lumpectomy and no one should have to work at McDonald’s all their life because they can’t afford a degree. That’s really the essence of the American Dream…the original version, at least. (Note: Working at McDonald’s because you don’t want to go further or because you like it is a different story, and there’s nothing wrong with it.)

            Not everyone can be a genius inventor or entrepreneur and I have no objection to people being rewarded for their ideas and hard work. What bugs the hell out of me is that some people have more money than they could ever spend (e.g., the Romneys, the Bushes, the Kochs, etc.), at the same time as there are kids who’d love to go to college but can’t because their families are poor, and the former refuse to pay even a teeny bit more in taxes that we could use to give the latter a little boost.

            This little novel was brought to you by the letter M (as in “Mondays, I have a case of the”)!

            1. Jamie

              I agree with much of what you said here – I just don’t know (and people much smarter than I don’t seem to know either) how to eliminate the inequities you mentioned without causing other issues…because it’s not zero sum and the money does need to come from somewhere – but I agree these are important things we need to address as a society.

              1. Heather

                It’s a depressing & complicated problem, that’s for sure.

                The most depressing part to me is that there IS the money to do all of this, but it’s being spent on other things…because Congress is owned by corporate lobbyists, so they keep on voting for what the lobbyists tell them to vote for. Hell, half the time the lobbyists write the laws (I wish I were making that up). The needs of actual human Americans are pretty much last in line, because we don’t have the money to force them to do what needs to be done.

                Ugh. I think I need to go look at some LOLcats now to cheer myself up.

          5. Kerry

            I totally agree that it’s the same argument, but to me the response is “so we should be trying to figure out how to create equality of opportunity in both attending college and getting work experience”, not “oh well, guess we’re setting up a permanent wealthy overclass, not much we can do about that then, eh?”

            I may be misunderstanding you though!

            1. Heather

              +1 (not that I think Jamie was saying we should just have a permanent wealthy overclass! Just agreeing with your response to the argument.)

      3. Cat

        No one argues that it’s wrong that college gives an advantage, when that’s not affordable for everyone either.

        But plenty of people do argue that it’s wrong that college isn’t affordable for everyone and that we should figure out a way to change that.

      4. Calla

        “No one argues that it’s wrong that college gives an advantage, when that’s not affordable for everyone either.”

        I don’t think that’s entirely true — I’ve seen plenty of people argue that it’s unfair/ridiculous that many entry-level positions require a BA when you don’t actually need one, and that’s in fact shutting out people who couldn’t afford to go to college but who have the necessary skills (of course, it’s not always a hard requirement, but sometimes it is). There’s definitely been some commentary that entry-level positions are the new internships.

        In addition, while it’s not necessarily wrong that a college education gives you an advantage, we absolutely should be making it more accessible to everyone — you’ll find huge support for that and it’s something that’s do-able. Meanwhile, there’s no way I can think of to make unpaid internships more accessible.

      5. Brett

        “No one argues that it’s wrong that college gives an advantage, when that’s not affordable for everyone either.”
        I have definitely heard this argument a lot in this region. There has been a strong push to prevent listing college degrees as a requirement for any position in a union contract and to keep college education out of apprenticeships. The heart of this argument is that college is not affordable and the advantage from a college degree has to be reduced.

        (And, at the same time, there are extensive financial resources put into place to make college accessible to people below upper middle class. This is not the case with unpaid internships, which are impossible for anyone below upper middle class.)

      6. Melissa

        Actually, there are a lot of people who argue that college should be more affordable and accessible to those who currently can’t afford to go. But allowing free labor to for-profit corporations is quite a different thing, anyway.

    2. HR lady

      I am just not sure it’s always the case that people who take unpaid internships are doing it because they “can afford to work for free.” I had an unpaid internship during the school year when I was in college. I did it in place of taking a class (so in other words, instead of my normal 4 classes a semester, that semester I took 3 plus the internship). I did not consider it to be “working for free because I could afford to.” I considered it to be substituting the internship for a class I would have taken (and paid for). I didn’t miss out on a paid job because of my time spent at an unpaid internship. In fact, I kept my part time, paid job that semester (which I could not have afforded to give up). So I disagree with the idea that only people who can afford to work for free get unpaid internships.

      1. TL

        During college, yes. After college or during the summer, which is the norm for at least a few industries, it would be harder to swing.
        And if you’re in a hours-heavy major (like engineering and music at my university) where your entire four years are planned out from your freshman year, you may simply not have the time to do an internship during the school year without putting your course load (if you’re allowed to!) over 20 hours.

        1. Felicia

          During university I didn’t find my unpaid internship as hard as I foudn the one I did after i graduated. I sort of missed out on a paid job because the internship was 40 hours a week (as most are in this industry), and i couldn’t work my paid job as much. And interning for years is common, as is doing at least 3-4 before you can get a job, so it’s hard. I think most of the arguments pro unpaid internships work best if people only had to do one of them, and while in school. That’s just not the case for most anymore.

          1. The IT Manager

            This doesn’t occur in my field so I am on the outside looking in, but I am still SHOCKED at the idea of someone graduating and then doing 3-4 unpaid internships which I take to mean more than a year maybe two. If it were someone I was supporting after the first one, I’d tell them that they needed to find a paying job to support themselves and start looking in another field.

            I do disagree with “That’s just not the case for most anymore.” It seems to be very much industry dependent and your industry has allowed this to become the norm through young grads being willing to put up with such treatment in order to find a job in it.

            1. Felicia

              I am only referring to most in a number of fields – in a couple of different fields it has become normal and even required to do that many unpaid internships . I graduated from a PR program in May 2012 and most of the 150ish people who graduated with me (and 150ish people who graduated the year before) are still doing internships. It generally means about a year of internships post graduation – though for the people who do an internship while they’re still in school, they might have more luck after 4-6 months of post graduation internships. Those who do have paying jobs, they’re mostly fairly short contracts. Though being in Canada, taking a one year maternity leave contract is a common way to get a first paying job.

              They’re not all entirely unpaid, but often pay the equivalent of 5$ an hour when minimum wage is 10.25$ an hour, so I kind of put those all in the same category because they’re all less than minimum wage.

              This isn’t entirely the norm, but my best friend did 3 unpaid internships, and then 3 other internships that paid slightly above minimum wage, and just got her first paid job two years post graduation. Not that everyone does that, but it’s not longer surprising.

            2. TL

              It’s not exactly easy to switch fields right now, either. So you may end up working part time jobs and just getting more and more frustrated because you can’t find a career track job anyway. Which is what happens to some people, certainly, but – I think the solution is more complicated than try to find a job in a field you’re not directly qualified for in this economic climate.

      2. Anonymous

        I think this could be a possible solution to the unpaid internship problem…that they should only be given when you are a le to earn course credits, thereby allowing kids to get work experience while still leaving time for a party time job to pay the bills. Without course credit , unpaid internships should be illegal.

    3. Mike C.

      Yeah, I’ve pretty much stopped reading the NY Times (outside of 538) because of all the faux-millenial navel gazing crap.

      “Oh millenials hate cars and marriage! They’re so wacky!”

      No, they just can’t afford them!

      1. Cat

        I don’t know; I’m technically a millennial, and I legit hate cars, as do many of my peers. I think there is also a cultural rejection of some portions of the car-driven lifestyle, some of which is driven by finances and some of which would exist in the absence of that.

        NYT trend stories are ridiculous though.

        1. Mike C.

          This is a good point, but my pet theory on this is the up until now complete lack of inexpensive, fun and practical cars out there. Now we have things like the Mazda 3, Fiat 500 and the new Dart and Focus.

          Then again I’m saving up for a Subaru BRZ, so there you go.

          1. Cat

            Yeah, you still have to park them, though, and deal with other drivers. I’m much happier in a place where I can walk or take public transportation.

            1. TL

              I’m a millennial and I love my car, as do many (most) of my peers, even those who use alternate transportation when they can. I imagine that question is *highly* regionally variable – there are many places in the US where a car is freedom.

              1. Cat

                Of course; but if we’re talking the NYT, there’s a reason they might see it as a trend!

        2. Melissa

          Gotta agree with you there. I am a Millennial too and I would much rather take public transportation or walk than drive a car. Cars are expensive and less healthy than public transit.

          But I am married, though, so scratch that. I think the articles come from a fundamental misunderstanding of Millennials. More of us would drive cars, buy houses and get married if we could afford to do so.

      2. AnonyMouse28

        It makes me NUTS. “Gosh, those millennials are so entitled, they all just want to get home before 7PM and have benefits and reasonable vacation time. THEY SHOULD JUST BE HAPPY TO HAVE A JOB! Excuse me while I go count the money in my pension so that I can use my union-guaranteed vacation time to fly to Martha’s Vineyard….”

        1. bitter

          Yeah, seriously. Plus, we’re working our butts off, paying tons of money into social security which we will never see again. But how they howl if we talk about SS reform! I don’t think we’re the entitled ones, necessarily.

          1. Editor

            As a Baby Boomer, I will say that the problem I have with reforming Social Security is more complicated than me selfishly wanting my benefits. First of all, my father earned a decent income (my mother didn’t “work” but she did all the bookkeeping for the business) and my parents inherited some money, too. Because my father lived past age 90 and my mother looks set to do the same, little or none of that family money will be passed down because of end-of-life medical expenses. So, as a Boomer, I didn’t have to support my parents, but I won’t get the boost in retirement savings they did by inheriting money when the older generation died around age 72 to 75. (My parents inherited money because their parents saved, but didn’t need to use all that money because Social Security and pensions helped support them.)

            Second, my parents’ generation had pensions. I have never had a pension and my spouse only had one from his first employer. After that it was all IRA and 401(k) savings, but at the time people weren’t told explicitly that they had to save more for retirement, and in fact banks encouraged people to spend more on houses by increasing the percentage of income that was allowed to go toward a mortgage. Boomers are resistant to changes in their Social Security because they don’t have pensions to take up the slack and their savings are eroded by the housing bust and the increasing cost of medical care. In addition, many Boomers haven’t exactly retired — they’ve been laid off.

            As life expectancy changed, the retirement age should have been phased upward and wasn’t. This means that Boomers should have been told from the beginning they would be working to an older age. They don’t want the retirement age raised to over 70 because for years they’ve thought that was, well, “old.” (And poor and working class Boomers have shorter lifespans and do die closer to retirement age.)

            Some Boomers want to keep working (particularly middle class Boomers in office jobs), but age discrimination, obsolete skills with technology, and the desire of younger workers to get promoted cause conflict between generations. Instead of complaining about Boomers keeping their jobs, we should consider shortening the work week to 30 to 35 hours so there are more jobs to go around. If Boomers could keep working in part-time jobs but with generous vacations, then maybe Social Security could institute some more changes for the early years of retirement that would benefit younger workers.

            Every young worker who is bitter about Social Security should press their congressional delegation to raise the Social Security tax income cap to $5 million or take the income cap off the Social Security tax. The wealthy shouldn’t get a pass on contributing to Social Security when a smaller group of young workers who are already paying student loans struggles with high payroll tax rates.

        2. anon-2

          I have the same situation — my father was a school principal, who cannot understand that we have

          – no pensions – let alone “COLA protected” ones
          – no job guarantees (“tenure”, “bumping rights”, “seniority”)
          – no grievance procedures
          – no union representation
          – no health care plan post-retirement….

          … and they wonder why we sometimes have to work 55-hour weeks…

  6. Jamie

    From article:

    But the reality is that if employers were required to pay for that work, they wouldn’t hire those interns at all. Instead, they would hire candidates with more experience, leaving more recent grads unemployed – potentially for a long time.

    This is the crux of the argument for me. It’s naive at best to assume that if not for unpaid interns there would be more jobs available. It’s like Alison said, they would either fill the positions they need to fill with more experienced candidates or they would go unfilled and the work would be absorbed by current staff.

    You learn a LOT about an office and an industry by just being there and being exposed to the environment, meeting people, learning from people who are currently doing what you want to do. It’s not between doing this for free or doing it for pay – it’s between doing it for free or not having the exposure at all.

    Full disclosure, I don’t work in an industry that does this and we’ve always paid our interns well above minimum wage but I know too many people in industries where this is common and it would be seriously handicapping a lot of people.

    1. Cat

      I actually think the opposite – if companies couldn’t use interns, that probably wouldn’t create new jobs, no. But it also doesn’t mean companies wouldn’t hire recent grads for the entry level positions that do exist: there are good reasons those are entry level positions rather than one for more experienced employees, and the fact that a candidate has done a 10 week internship doesn’t actually make them comparable to a more experienced candidate. I think the same number of recent grads would be hired; companies would just have to expend slightly (but not really that much) more effort training them. The main function of an internship is not to get better trained entry-level workers; it’s a signalling mechanism that shows who is experienced, eager, and capable. But companies could make hiring decisions for new employees in the absence of that.

      When the economy is bad, employers might well hire more experienced employees for entry level positions sometimes. They’re doing that now even though internships exist. When the economy is better, they won’t have that option, and that’s independent of whether the entry-level employees are doing internships or not.

    2. ThursdaysGeek

      But, if there are a limited number of jobs available, then how is making some of them unpaid helping any of the unemployed?

    3. Mike C.

      How did companies find new employees before unpaid internships? And why is it that so many companies continue to pay theirs?

    4. AnonyMouse28

      I’m sorry, but there’s absolutely no proof that without unpaid internships employers will choose to hire staff instead. On-boarding staff is considerably more expensive than an hourly wage employee (try asking your HR department what the average cost is to on-board new staff. They may not tell you, but if they do, you may be surprised). The closest equivalent is a part-time temp, but that frankly hurts the employer as much as the intern they choose not to hire. Interning serves, as Cat mentioned above, as an easy means of filtering future new-hires, and a part-time intern is considerably more cost effective than a fleet of temps that require the same amount of training but have considerable more expectations (i.e. expect to be made permanent) and aren’t necessarily very loyal to the company given their relationship to the agency that placed them.

    5. LMW

      Actually, we prefer paid interns for some positions at my company — the work is really basic entry level, and we tend to go through entry level employees really fast — a year or two and they want to move on. If we have a couple part-time interns, we know it’s a limited time deal, we give them exposure to multiple areas of the business, and they get that basic level experience they need. It’s been a win-win. Otherwise, we were constantly searching for new entry-level people.

    6. annie

      This is just my company, but we’ve talked about this – if we are forced to stop having unpaid interns, we’ll just cut the projects that they work on. Most interns aren’t (and shouldn’t, I argue) doing super heavy lifting for the companies they are interning for, they’re doing supportive type of tasks and shadowing someone to learn the ropes and get some experience as to what the job is like. It’s not something we’d pay someone to do, so if we had to get rid of them, we’d just have more shifted onto our own plates to deal with, we wouldn’t hire anyone for pay.

    7. V

      Have you seen the requirements for unpaid internships lately? Many of them REQUIRE 1-2 years of experience. How is that an internship?!?!

      1. Felicia

        I’ve seen the 1-2 years experience required for many many unpaid internships. Once, and only once, I saw an unpaid internship that said minimum 5 years experience required. Now that was crazy.

  7. Angelina Retta

    It should be such a simple concept: if someone works, pay them. Volunteering and unpaid internships are nothing but exploitation. Especially when a large, non-charitable business does it.

    1. TL

      I like volunteering! Not being paid means I’m not forced to track my output and makes me more relaxed; plus it feels like fun instead of a work commitment.
      As long as it’s not compulsory and for a cause I feel like supporting, it’s awesome.

  8. kristinyc

    I get what you’re saying, and agree with your point to an extent. Unpaid internship experience is definitely better than no experience at all.

    However – some college programs (like mine) REQUIRE internships for graduation. We had to do 10 weeks, with a minimum of 20 hours/week – and we had to pay for a college credit on top of that. So even though I had a paid internship, I still ended up having to take out a student loan specifically to pay for the class credit for the internship. If I had an unpaid internship, I would have had to take out even more loan money to cover living expenses for that summer.

    For some industries (especially publishing/magazines), it’s impossible to get a foot in the door without one (or five) unpaid internships. That’s fine – except for the fact that most of those internships are in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I have relatives who work in that industry, and the result has been a larger amount of “trust fund” students get the internships, because they’re the only ones who can afford to do them.

    I did two internships during school that were both paid. Because I was paid, I didn’t have to have a second job either of those summers just to cover living costs. (I only had to pay for the college credit for one of them). I was able to focus just on the internship, and I excelled at both of them. And since they were paying me, I took my work a lot more seriously. A few years after I graduated and was in between jobs, I did a weeklong (practically) unpaid internship, and I hated it and cared a lot less about my work. It was just for a specific event, and they asked me to stay longer after the week, but I was spending more on transportation/lunches than I was making, and the work was terrible. No thanks!

    I don’t think it would be unreasonable to at least pay minimum wage to interns. My company pays our interns really well, and a lot of them end up coming back to work for us when we graduate.

    1. Felicia

      My program required an internship to graduate too, and the vast majority are unpaid, yet we had to pay tuition in order to get the credit.

      I’m in public relations and most of my friends have to do more than one unpaid internship – more like four or five. Only certain people can afford to do them, and that closes off certain professions from anyone but the risk. I’ve done two, and i’m still having trouble finding an “entry level” job in the field, because entry level means minimum 2-3 years experience now. I sort of agree with you if it were common to find a job after 1 unpaid internship, but in my experience people have to do about 3 , maybe more, before they can get paid. In one of my internships i was doing what someone would get paid to do, and felt exploited.

      What did people do before unpaid internships became mandatory anyways? They must have hired people for money and trained them.

      Also how common is it for internships to be part time 20 hours a week? I’d say 95% of the internships I’ve ever seen or heard of in PR are 40 hours a week, often more, which makes it much much more difficult to find a paying job on top of it.

      1. kristinyc

        I majored in PR too! I ended up doing one PR internship at a hospital (paid $8/hr – in 2006!) and a marketing internship at a Jar company ($12/hr in 2007, full time – SCORE!).

        Anyway, paid PR internships are out there, you just have to be willing to work in small town Indiana to get them. Mine were both great though! I got a ton of experience writing press releases (that were actually published!)

        1. Felicia

          I’m in Canada so I don’t want to leave the country:) They are out there, they’re just really really hard to get:) And they generally pay a small stipend that’s less than minimum wage. And a lot of people who do them don’t get a job afterwards. I graduated in 2012, and most people in my program who graduated my same year are either on their 3rd or 4th internship or working in retail, or back in school for something totally different (there are i think a couple who have paid PR jobs, not many). I figure there’s a difference between the 2007 economy and 2012 economy that might account for the difference. I did a marketing internship at a literacy non profit for a grand total of 500$ for 4 months, a PR internship at a moderately sized local newspaper for 4 months for absolutely nothing, and am currently a social media/web content coordinator for a small insurance company at 50$ a week (this one actually is 20 hours a week, most are full time).

          I think i’m just bitter on the whole concept of internships:) I got on a lot of interviews for paid entry level jobs and get told I don’t have enough experience. I think i’d be okay if it wasn’t so hard to get a job after 1 unpaid internship.

    2. Emma

      You two covered the issue of time/cost but the other thing is – internship/graduation requirements typically include an internship seminar. So not only are you paying for the opportunity to work, getting the credits, and going to work…you still have a class to take.

      1. kristinyc

        Mine required that I write a few essays/weekly reports of what I’d been working on and send them to an internship coordinator. We had to take a “professionalism” seminar that was only 1 credit and only part of the semester, but we were able to lump that in during the school year (basically, 12-18 credit hours cost the same, so it didn’t necessarily cost more for that).

  9. Emma

    I was privileged enough to take several unpaid internships while working multiple part-time jobs and taking a full courseload throughout my undergraduate degree. It wasn’t easy but it’s what I had to do – and I’m not saying everyone should just have my drive and get on with it because I acknowledge that I had a lot of implicit and explicit help to get where I am now. Unpaid internships ARE a privilege, part of the privilege of participating in the middle-class institution of college education, and unfortunately I don’t see internships becoming more of a right until employers start offering some sort of financial assistance to interns.

  10. E.R.

    Well, I think I agree with Alison. I think one big problem we need to address (I’m Canadian, but our issues are similar to the U.S) is the rising cost of tuition (student debt).

    From my own experience, my 3 month unpaid internship was great. It was set up and monitored by my college program, I did a mix of boring and interesting/challenging work, it helped me transition from school to the workforce in a low-pressure environment, definitely beefed up my resume for my first entry level position, and I did ultimately get my first job out of it, a month after the internship ended, at the same company. I realize that others’ internship experiences are not this positive.

    I do understand that the system is rigged in favour of the well-off, those who can afford to work for free (although I worked part-time on top of my internship). When I hear about people literally interning for years, my heart goes out to them – that’s an awful situation. But i don’t think getting rid of internships is the answer. I don’t think that intern labour will be replaced by paid labour, and I do think it will create another barrier to entry in the workforce for grads. Which isn’t to say there aren’t’ huge problems with our economies and real struggles for recent grads that we need to to address.

    1. Waerloga

      Really? AFAIK (with a labour lawyer as a son) you were required to be paid. My co-op students are being paid (above the minimum wage, but not by a large amount), and CRA really does not like it when they don’t get their share…

      Take care


      1. Felicia

        There are thousands of unpaid internships in Canada that are technically illegal, but no one is doing anything about it. Unpaid internships are extremely common in Canada (places like Much Music and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment have large teams of unpaid interns). I’m surprised you seem to think unpaid internships are uncommon in Canada, because they’re absolutely everywhere .

        1. Waerloga

          True, I’ve a thought/comment about it near the start of the thread… And in BC (and perhaps in other provinces and territories) it is illegal to have unpaid internships.

          In my view, it’s still wrong to have unpaid staff working in the office/lab/site. Mind I live in BC, and we’re quite unionized.

          Take care


          1. John Quincy Adding Machine

            I’m in BC, and I’m doing an unpaid internship. If CRA came knocking, my boss would probably tell them that I’m a volunteer, or that he fired me but I just kept on showing up.

            1. Waerloga

              Google HootSuite and unpaid interns. Your boss should know better, HR darn well should know better.

              Take care


    2. Felicia

      I think if my 4 month unpaid internship had been enough to land me a job I would be okay with it, but it’s not. Most of my friends can’t find a job after the 4 month unpaid internship set up by the university that we had to do to graduate. Most people have to intern for years, and it’s rare to find a job after only doing 1 internship.

  11. Mike C.

    Of course I read it first, how else am I going to hone my argument if I can’t directly shoot down specific points that I find problematic? :p

    Opponents of unpaid internships like to argue that those interns are doing work that should be paid, and that they’re displacing paying jobs. But the reality is that if employers were required to pay for that work, they wouldn’t hire those interns at all. Instead, they would hire candidates with more experience, leaving more recent grads unemployed – potentially for a long time. After all, if you’re a business owner choosing between someone with no work experience and someone with three years of experience, you’re going to hire the more experienced candidate. Where’s the incentive to take a risk on and spend time training the candidate with no experience, when for the same salary you can hire someone who already knows what they’re doing and won’t need as much supervision?

    There’s a few problems with this:

    1. Everyone who has worked a job has worked a first job. Whether it’s retail, on campus job, mowing lawns and so on. Sure, an employer will want more experience (until they don’t and they call you over qualified) but that doesn’t mean they will always have access to it. Thus they hire whoever they can. In this particular economy things are made more difficult, but the principle still applies.

    Frankly, what did companies do before unpaid interns? And why is it that the practice of unpaid internships doesn’t happen in fields that require STEM degrees? Shouldn’t an employer prefer the experienced over the non-experienced regardless of industry?

    2. Abuse of the system is still incredibly rife. How is the average unpaid intern supposed to report violations of federal law when it would directly endanger the very thing they’re trying to achieve – a good recommendation? Is it fair from a free market or ethical standpoint that some companies take advantage of this issue to unfairly compete against industry competitors and deny employees money rightfully earned?

    3. So when those individuals who are working for free end up in bad situations they’re less likely to be able to take care of it themselves and must avail themselves to sparse safety nets instead. I shouldn’t have to foot this bill because some company was too cheap to pay an entry level employee minimum wage.

    1. TL

      #2 is my main complaint. I work in a STEM field and all internships are paid, either by stipend if you’re working for a nonprofit (academics) or by a working salary if you’re working for a company. Most major companies have paid internships, recruit for them, and recruit full-time employees out of them. It’s definitely a part of the STEM culture to have paid internships – and I know a few STEM majors for whom that has made a huge difference in their job opportunities/financial situations. I don’t understand why that can’t be integrated into other fields’ cultures.
      (Academia’s a little different; students can find their own grants if they need to and summer, when most internships happen, is often the busiest time for a lab, meaning the extra short-term help is needed and interns are the best way to get it.)

      1. AnonyMouse28

        Hell, I work in publishing. PUBLISHING. Our profit margins are NONEXISTENT, and we still somehow manage to pay our interns an hourly wage.

          1. AnonyMouse28

            LOL I’m pretty sure you and I work for the same company, from your previous comments in the past…Have you been getting a gazillion “Dear Colleague” letter’s this morning too??

      2. Windchime

        I work in IT. My previous company would bring in interns in the summer, and they were paid. I don’t think it would have even occurred to my company to ask someone to work all summer for nothing.

        1. Lydia Navarro

          I worked at an IT company where the CEO was known for bringing in school kids as young as 14 for internships, and those were all paid (under the table if the kid didn’t have work permit). This was the 90s, but still.

  12. Lora

    I am showing my age, but when I had just graduated college, you only did an (as in one) internship if you intended to go to graduate school, and you could still get into grad school (not a top program, but somewhere) without any internship at all. Actual industry jobs hired people straight out of college whose only previous work experience was bagging groceries and mowing lawns.

    Miraculously, companies survived and even grew. From my perspective, requiring an internship for an entry level job is simply a function of the labor market being saturated: plenty of jobs that used to be done by high school grads now require a bachelor’s, and now we’ve gone from a bachelor’s to a bachelor’s + internship, and I’ve seen plenty of jobs inflate from bachelor’s to master’s. In fact I just got rejected from a job that in Ye Olden Tymes would have been done by an experienced bachelor’s or mid-career master’s, because they can get a PhD with a postdoc for my salary expectations. Of course, the PhD will have a learning curve because they’ll never have done this stuff before, whereas I can jump right in, but I guess it depends on what your goals are as an organization.

    1. Lindsay J

      +1. I didn’t graduate that long ago (my high school graduation was ten years ago) and I don’t remember unpaid internships being a thing in 2004 when I graduated high school, nor in 2008 when we graduated college. Certainly not 1-2 years of unpaid internships like people are talking about in this thread!

      I agree, I think it’s just because the economy is so bad, and because the idea of these unpaid internships has become entrenched that companies can require 1-2 years of internship experience for entry level positions. I don’t necessarily think that internships have replaced entry-level postions – it’s just that their existence, combined with all the unemployed or under-employed people with experience who willing to work entry-level position that they would not have in the past that are setting the bar higher.

      In a better economy when there are more positions for less candidates, Wakeen with 5 years of experience is not going to be applying for the same jobs as Skyler who just graduated college because Wakeen’s skills and experience would command more money than the $28,000 a year starting wage. However, now Wakeen is applying for those positions because she’s not making a choice between midlevel positions making $40,000 a year and an entry level position making $28,000 a year, she’s making a decision between that entry level position and Starbucks. So Skyler doesn’t stand much of a chance against her.

      Skyler is also competing against Jesse, who could afford to take an unpaid internship for a year after school. In general, Jesse’s bachelor’s degree plus one year experience is going to make him a more attractive candidate than Skyler with just her degree because he already knows the norms of the profession and has some applied rather than theoretical knowledge.

      She’s also competing against Walt, who has a Master’s degree. Again, in a better economy Walt wouldn’t be interested in the $28,000 entry level positions that Skyler is competing for, but he needs to get his foot in the door somewhere so now he is.

      Basically it’s just a function of capitalism. In better economies, companies would be hiring Skyler because she gave them the best bang for the buck for the salary they were willing to pay. However, now in this poor economy there are other people with more experience (and who are willing to work unpaid internships to get that experience) who are willing to work for that entry level wage. More experience for the same wage = better for the employer (in general). So they get hired for the industry jobs, and Skyler gets left working at McDonald’s instead.

      I don’t think unpaid internships have necessarily eliminated paid positions, however they have added in another hurdle for those without the internships to overcome before they can realistically be hired for the paid positions.

      1. Felicia

        + a million. You explained why I believe things are the way they are perfectly! And I’ve often lost entry level 28,000 a year jobs to people with 5 years experience, so I particularly related to that.

    2. Melissa

      This. Businesses are hiring unpaid interns to get free labor out of them simply because they can.

  13. Cat

    There’s no question that unpaid internships perpetuate inequality in society. The problem is that fighting inequality by getting rid of unpaid internships seems like, well, trying to bail out the titanic with a bucket. Companies are going to have to distinguish between bright young college graduates somehow.* In the absence of internships, what will they fall back on? College prestige? College extracurriculars? Personal connections? All of those things are almost as correlated with socioeconomic status as unpaid internships are, if not more so.

    I don’t know what the solution is, to be honest. One solution would be better financial aid: if students whose parents couldn’t afford to float them for an internship could get scholarships to cover tuition + living expenses, they could do them for college credit. But given the gutting of higher education funding, the rising costs of tuition, and mounting debt burdens, that seems unlikely to happen any time soon. The fact is that we’re living in a society that is becoming increasingly stratified; higher education is increasingly a tool of that stratification; and internships are part of that but hardly the only or major contributor. If we want to change that, we need to take some pretty drastic reforms, not just slap a band-aid on the issue.

    That said, maybe it still makes sense to get rid of internships. Maybe they are a worse proxy for merit and a better proxy for social class than other things employers would use to distinguish between college graduates. I don’t know and it could probably use some empirical research.

    * I mentioned it above, but I think this is more about comparing college graduates than it is comparing entry level graduates to more experienced ones.

    1. Cat

      And, by the way, as an illustration: the top law schools actually have figured out a way to make unpaid internships universally accessible to their students. They give any student who wants one a stipend to do work at a public interest organization for the summer. It’s not luxurious but it covers living expenses. They do that by raising money from wealthy alumni, and by asking students who took lucrative private firm jobs to chip in.

      But we’re talking about the top maybe 3-6 law schools here, schools that have untold amounts of resources. And most of the people who get into those schools to begin with came from pretty privileged backgrounds (not all, but most). It’s not clear to me it’s practical to translate that model to society at large without, again, drastic social changes. It is the way to put students on an equal footing as to internships though.

    2. AnonyMouse28

      I agree with you, but my feeling is: “We can’t fix poverty, but we can fix this.” It doesn’t change the underlying foundations of institutional privilege, but it gives students that are the victims of it a chance while we keep working on all of the other issues.

      I agree that colleges should absolutely pay for internship experience (frankly, a stipend for the lowest income brackets from the university on top of a mandatory hourly wage from the employer would go a LONG way to assisting students on either coast, where cost of living is horrendous and 10/hr or less frankly won’t cut it), but frankly this is part of a larger “overhaul the tuition in this country, damnit” conversation, since public universities are having their budgets gutted and private universities are spending more and more money on everything BUT the students they serve…

      1. SevenSixOne

        One of my internships offered a very small stipend– it worked out to about $10 a day– and I felt that was somehow more insulting than not paying me at all.

      2. TL

        I have a friend who gets living money from his university, on top of a full scholarship – (about $2500/semester, so enough for gas, clothes, shoes, and a trip somewhere close every now and then.)
        It’s basically a stipend from the university, though I don’t think he’s taken any internships. It would allow him to do an unpaid one during the school year, however.

        1. AnonyMouse28

          Victim (n): one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent . From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

          Still confused?

          1. Anonymous

            I know what the word victim means.

            Using it to describe students who may not have every advantage that other students have is overly dramatic and dilutes the point you are trying to make.

            1. AnonyMouse28

              *eyeroll* NOPE. Not going to get into a semantics argument re: a word used both correctly and appropriately within context. Buy a dictionary.

              1. Anonymous

                Again with the drama. If you had a legitimate point to make, you wouldn’t need the theatrics.

    3. Mike C.

      Or we could better fund AmeriCorps. that’s an actual job, and it works for students who haven’t been to college yet.

    4. Lora

      ” In the absence of internships, what will they fall back on? College prestige? College extracurriculars? Personal connections?”

      Most go by prestige until they get burned by too many Ivy grads without a work ethic.

      I go by senior projects (STEM), previous work experience outside the field (e.g. supermarket clerk, waiting tables–any previous work), lab techniques they learned in school, whether they can answer technical questions in an interview correctly, whether they come to the interview prepared, what sort of work they enjoyed most about their major, what they want to get out of the job.

      You can weed out a surprising number of applicants just with very basic stuff: typos on resume, cover letters not very good, not able to answer questions like, “why do you want to work for Company?” in a phone interview.

  14. Just a Reader

    I am pro unpaid internships. Mine, at a non profit, was absolutely fantastic and I got way better experience than I would have from a paid internship at an agency. I did real work that the organization needed to further its PR program, not administrative grunt work with my employer throwing me a bone now and then with a real-world project.

    I can guarantee that if my internship had been illegal, the organization just wouldn’t have filled that spot at all, and would have put the onus on the department to find a way to get the work done.

    Unpaid interns aren’t competitors for jobs and they aren’t preventing new jobs from being created. They’re people we should be mentoring in this difficult market and help for organizations that can’t afford to hire a FTE.

    1. Rachel

      But your unpaid internship was legal- nonprofit internships fall under the same categories as volunteering. It’s unpaid internships at for-profit companies that are breaking labor laws.

    2. V

      It depends on your experience. I did 3 internships. All were paid. One was at a nonprofit, one at a Fortune 500 company and one at a medium-sized tech company. I got real experience in all of them. I didn’t have to do much grunt work and the projects that I worked on were of value to the company.

    3. Melissa

      How do you know that your experience was better than it would’ve been if it were at a paid agency? Would you have learned any less if they had paid you?

  15. mahmadiqbal

    Nothing I can say what people have not said above. This is indeed one time I disagree with Allison 100 percent. If someone works for you, no matter in whatever capacity it is, they need to be payed. I do not mind, if it’s state minimum wage, they still need to get paid.

    I think there should actually be a bill passed for giving tax credit for hiring paid interns to companies, so its a win win for everyone.

  16. ThursdaysGeek

    No. Alison makes some good points, but that is only one side of the argument, and there are some really good points on the other side too.

    Besides the argument above about unpaid internships only available to the upper class who can afford to work for free, there is also the issue of worker exploitation, which already happens and would be worse if made legal. People who are not paid are not able to buy goods and help the economy, and may need public assistance. People with only a little bit of experience now can’t get jobs because the unpaid interns are working the entry level jobs — if there aren’t more jobs available, then having some unpaid doesn’t reduce the number of unemployed.

    There’s a benefit to those who can afford an unpaid internship. There is a benefit to companies who don’t have to pay for work. Where is the benefit to the rest of us? And do their benefits outweigh the negative impact?

    1. Just a Reader

      Is there any evidence that unpaid interns are taking entry-level jobs? Because I find this hard to believe. Internships today are required to GET an entry-level job.

      Also, I don’t think unpaid internship = public assistance. If people need a paid job that bad they can find a paid internship or a paid job off of their career path. This whole comment seems incredibly overblown.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        So if a person can’t afford to work for free, they shouldn’t be in that career? Because if they get a paid job “off their career path”, they will not likely ever be able to get back on it.

        1. Just a Reader

          Nowhere did I say that people should work for free or not be in their chosen career. I said they should pursue a paid internship if it’s that big a deal, and if they’re facing a choice between an unpaid internship and a paid job, they should take the paid job.

          Again, I think you’re completely overblowing this. There are lots of paid internships out there, and lots of people who support themselves through school at unrelated jobs and are able to break in there chosen career path.

          I’m not sure where all the outrage is coming from, but you’ve presented zero evidence that unpaid internships are in fact detrimental to students or to the economy.

      2. Anonymous

        I’ve been in the workforce for 30 years – entry level jobs really did used to be what internships are now. You used to be able to enter the job field with no experience and were expected to learn as you went. Many jobs that now require at least a Bachelor’s degree and internship just required a high school diploma 30 years ago. What you didn’t know, you learned. (Or you could work in high school and get credit for those jobs – there were programs for the trades and for office workers in my high school and many students participated in them, gaining credit toward graduation and work experience as well as earning a little money, all at the same time. High school kids, not college kids.) “Entry level” doesn’t really mean entry level anymore. Internship means entry level and entry level means at least 3 years experience.

    2. Anonymous

      I came to post something similar to this. I agree that unpaid internships are great for individuals…terrible for the economy. Sure, interns are gaining an advantage in the job market. But our economy needs demand to improve and unpaid interns simply aren’t contributing anything to that–very few investment purchases and paying little-no taxes (likely getting refunds or benefits too). Multiply that by 10,000s, and that’s a huge problem. Only made worse by the fact that now the experienced candidates that they would be forced to compete with for paid work are being asked to do mid-level work for entry level salaries. When do we stop? What does the graduate from 2 years ago do? She has a little experience and needs to get paid, but she’s caught between a rock (unpaid interns) and a hard place (experienced candidates).

      I completely understand the arguments for why internships are good for individuals. Lots of people have been able to establish a career by starting at the very bottom and it’s a great way to gain experience where you otherwise wouldn’t, I get it. I don’t think it’s wrong for anyone trying to get an advantage, but at the same time, it’s becoming a race to the bottom scenario. I’m not necessarily arguing that they should be eliminated all together, but I do think we need to think about them in a larger context than just whether or not the unpaid intern is benefitting or being exploited.

  17. Scott Woode

    I’m so glad that you decided to comment on this, Alison. Truth be told, for the most part, I agree with your standpoint, but I also see the other-side of the coin. There is a preponderance of evidence that internships help a great deal, but I’m constantly reading things like this article in the Atlantic which has studied job placement vs. internships for the past three years or this article in the Washingtonian discussing permanent interns which in turn indicate that the problem is the “free labor” in the hopes of getting a real job. I don’t know if it’s a simple solution that can be decided on by the Supreme Court, but I do know that this problem is beginning to (if it hasn’t already) really hurt a generation who may never reach the idealized American dream (house, car, 2.5 kids, etc.)

    Thanks again for making such an articulate rebuttal. I’m really happy that a discussion is being had, especially on this blog. :)

    1. Lore

      I’m glad you linked to that Atlantic article. I found it a little confusing because I couldn’t quite tell if they were referring to unpaid internships leading to jobs at the company where one was interning or any jobs at all, but still an interesting set of data.

      1. Flynn

        Following the linktrail back, the full data isn’t freely available, but

        “Note: All data are for bachelor’s degree level graduating seniors who reported applying for a job before graduation”

        And from the Executive Summary (which has lots of nice data, actually)

        “The retention rates of full-time hires who came from an employers’ own internship/co-op program are higher than the rates of those hires that either completed an internship/co-op with another employer or completed no internship/co-op at all.”

        So I guess it’s *any* job, regardless of where they interned.


        1. Liz T

          Yeah–they measured success in terms of “at least one job offer,” so it didn’t have to be a job offer at the company providing the internship.

          (I’ve had four internships, some paid and some not, and at none did I have any expectation that the people I was interning for might hire me after the internship ended.)

    2. Anonymous

      “This problem is beginning to…really hurt a generation who may never reach the idealized American dream (house, car, 2.5 kids, etc.)”

      Where is it written that anyone is entitled to these things? I had an upper middle class upbringing, I have worked super hard all my life combined with a lot of natural talent and I have none of these things. Yet the last thing I would do is call myself a victim.

      The Constitution guarantees the right to pursue happiness. It doesn’t impose one happiness for everyone nor does it guarantee that each pursuit will attain its goal.

      1. Kerry

        Entitled to a home and a family? I would think it’s in society’s interest to help its citizens ensure they have a roof over their heads and a family if they want one. If nothing else, social welfare gets incredibly expensive if large numbers of people can’t afford to house and feed themselves.

        1. Anonymous

          It’s quite a jump from not achieving “the idealized American dream” to living in starvation in the streets.

          Having a roof over one’s head does not mean that you have to live in a house or own a home. Making this an expectation has actually harmed society and the environment.

          Entitled to a family just because you want one implies that everyone is cut out to or has some sort of right to be a parent. I’d rather put the emphasis on what is best for children than the “wants” of entitled adults. Again, making this an expectation has actually harmed society and the environment.

          We’d be better off if we stopped having such narrow definitions of “the American dream.”

  18. SevenSixOne

    I’ve had two internships. The first had a two new employees who had just completed internships, one near the end of her internship starting paid employment when she completed it… and then a new intern and me, and neither of us got a job offer because the company already filled every entry-level position with the last two rounds of interns.

    I realized too late that the second internship was at a place that relied on interns because they couldn’t afford to pay (slightly above minimum wage with dinky benefits) more than a handful of employees. One employee quit without notice two weeks before my internship ended, so Assistant Boss shoved an app under my nose and said FILL THIS OUT AS A FORMALITY BIG BOSS REALLY LIKES YOU AND WE NEED SOMEONE LIKE YESTERDAY. I applied, interviewed… and then the company hired someone externally With More Experience (TM) who started working before my internship was even over.

    I’m OK with internships in theory, but my own experiences mean it’s REALLY HARD for me not to be bitter and cynical about them.

    1. Felicia

      Not being bitter and cynical about them is hard for me too. And I love your With More Experience (TM) , I think I’m going to use that in the future :) I think your experiences (and mine) represent what is typical, just because most of my classmates have similar stories to yours.

  19. Michael

    Instead, they would hire candidates with more experience, leaving more recent grads unemployed – potentially for a long time.

    Given the spate of experienced people out of work I don’t see how this is a bad thing. Given the choice between delaying a college graduate from getting work experience to getting more of those still out of work persons some job that could later turn into a higher paying position and prevent some more home foreclosures, loan defaults, and so on in the meantime I would choose the later.

    If it weren’t for that case I would agree with the article much easier. However, tons of qualified people are still looking for work. This includes people in their mid-to-late 20’s who have decades of working years ahead of them. People who got their degree, got some experience but got let go anyway.

    I still think people should be paid for the time they actually work. Even apprentice workers in trades get pay. Interns in non-trades fields are little different. Both include classroom and on the job time. Both get you some credential for better paid work after the fact.

    1. Cat

      Yes, I think this is a very good point. It’s not actually bad on a societal level for experienced workers to be hired before entry level one. It’s bad that there aren’t enough jobs to go around but that’s a different issue.

  20. Anonymous

    This is one of those sad moments when I remember you are actually focused on supporting, helping, and promoting the employer and don’t care about the people.

    1. AnonyMouse28

      :/ I disagree with Alison on this issue, but I don’t think your comment is true at all. HR as a structure is, yes, designed to benefit the employer, so many of Alison’s answers take that into account. That doesn’t mean she’s a shill for employers–it means she recognizes the reality on the ground and tries to help employees understand and work the system as best they’re able within the confines of that structure.

      PS: Don’t be rude or insulting. Kthx.

      1. Anonymous

        I didn’t mean that she was a shill, nor do I think she’s HR, and I recognize that it is actually important to have people speak from an employers point of view. That is a big part of why I read this. What does the employer think, and I generally really appreciate the honest views. You can stand up, but here are the potential repercussions, etc.

        But this post totally ignores that fact that not paying people for work means that they only people who will then get the better job are people who can afford it. Not the best people for the job. The people who have the most financial support. (Which frankly I don’t think is that great for the employer in the long run, but that’s a pretty long view.) Because it isn’t about the people. It is about the company.

        1. Anonymous

          “that fact that not paying people for work means that they only people who will then get the better job are people who can afford it. Not the best people for the job.”

          How is this a fact? You don’t know what a given employer’s hiring criteria is. On the one hand, the employer hiring the more experienced person for the job might very well be the employer hiring the best person for the job.

          On the other hand, given a subpar candidate with some internship experience and a fantastic candidate without any internship experience, the truly fantastic candidate should be able to make that come through throughout the application/interview process.

          Bottom line – it’s better for the company to hire the best people and there is nothing wrong with that.

          If it matters, I am writing from the perspective of someone who graduated from a highly selective graduate program with 100K in student loan debt and then spent 6 YEARS looking for full time paid employment. I know what it is like to have a hard time finding a job.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m not sure how you would reach that conclusion from a blog filled with articles about how to get a job you like and find happiness in your career.

    3. Melissa

      Although I disagree with Alison on this, all of her posts are directed towards helping jobseekers, not employers.

  21. The IT Manager

    Just another thing to consider is that is a ton of possibilities included in the term “internship.” Your idea about what an intership is may differ from another commenters, and industry internship standards/expectations vary widely.

    I went to a public STEM university. I didn’t know of any of my classmates who took an unpaid internship. I am under the impression most STEM companies do pay their interns.

    The impression I do get about unpaid internships is
    1) they are very often in hard to get into fields for which there are a lot more hopeful applicants than there will ever be open positions (like the movie biz hence Fox Searchlight in the legal ruling)
    2) The requirements for these intership/entry-level positions don’t really require specialized training so in fact practically any high school grad can do it. i.e. Resaonable written and verbal communication skills and able to perform to basic office etiquette standards. And the specialized skills if the intern does any at all can be taught through on the job training.

    Because so many people are qualified and these jobs are considered a foot in the door to a desirable industry, businesses can find someone to work for free.

    1. Mike C.

      But up thread we have folks in the dead tree publishing industry that pay their interns.

      1. The IT Manager

        Kudos to them. I love books and the people that write and make them. But it seems to be something of an exception, and an example that the industry/field sets the standard. They all pay because few would intern for free in the field since there’s paid internships available.

        If you are using it as an example to disagree with me me you are also assuming dead tree publishing is a highly desirable, competitive field with more aspirants than open positions. Which it may or may not be; I don’t know.

        1. Mike C.

          Highly desirable industry? I work in aerospace.

          We pay all of our interns. Even the ones without STEM degrees.

          1. The IT Manager

            I feel like you’re disagreeing with me, but can’t tell about what. My impression with those two characteristics is about unpaid internships only.

            You say aerospace pays interns, so internships in that industry would not necessarily fit those characteristics.

            1. TL

              My experience with STEM internships – and I had several not terribly long ago – is that they are fairly competitive and lots of people want them. (You need research experience for grad school and it certainly doesn’t look bad to med schools, on the academic side.)
              And while you’re doing lab work and your project will probably require your academic background, much of what you do would only require a high school diploma.

        2. LMW

          Dead tree publishing is an extremely competitive field. It’s part of the reason the pay is so low — people are willing to work for next to nothing out of love. So the fact that they are willing to pay for interns when many actually would work for free is remarkable.
          I worked in publishing, and we paid our interns. They earned almost as much as the regular employees.

    2. The IT Manager

      My STEM university pushed its internship-equivalent the Co-op very, very hard because it improves the chance of being hired at graduation and augments the students education.

      The Cooperative Education Program is designed to provide students an employment opportunity to gain practical degree-related, work experience prior to graduation. The program is set up so students can take a break from studies and work full-time for one or for a combination of semesters such as spring/summer or summer/fall, allowing 8-9 months of work experience vs. the 3 summer months allowed for internship positions.

      Co-op Work Program Fee: is the equivalent of the educational fee for 1 in-state credit hour (regardless of residency) plus a $100 processing fee and is applied for each co-op term.

      If students want to earn credit they can apply to their department to do so and then they will have to pay for those credit hours. But the student gets remains a college student while being able to work a full time, paying job for longer than a 3 month summer break. It’s fairly normal for someone to Coop for 6 – 9 months, go back to school for a couple of semesters and go back to Co-op with the same or a different company. Obviously the hope is always that the Co-op leads to a job with the company, but even if it doesn’t a student gets great work experience for longer than a three month summer break.

      I think being STEM is a definate factor, but in my opinion this is the way to do a during college “internship”.

      1. Judy

        When I was in college (STEM) our co-op program was very structured. It was a 5 year program, in which you were in school 2 semesters your freshman year, then either school or work during that summer, alternating semesters, ending with 2 semesters your 5th year. One of the years I worked the spring, was in school during the summer, and worked the fall.

  22. Anonymous

    I agree with Alison that eliminating unpaid internships won’t open up more jobs and I agree with those who say it benefits the upper classes.

    Perhaps it’s time for scholarships to be expanded to included paying the living expenses of interns.

    1. Mike C.

      Why should scholarships be made available to companies that don’t want to pay employees? Have you seen the stock market recently? Companies are doing *great* right now, and could easily afford to pay interns.

      1. Anonymous

        But they’re not paying interns and I don’t see any evidence that they will in the near future. However, I do know there are quite a few foundations and wealthy individuals out there that are regularly funding scholarships and doing all they can to help the less fortunate, hence my suggestions that these scholarships also be applied to internships.

        1. Mike C.

          But you’re not understanding my concern. It’s one thing for someone to fund a scholarship based on the belief that educating the poor helps them and helps society. But it’s quite another for someone to pay for a job so that a for-profit company can increase their margins. That helps no one but shareholders, and they don’t need the help!

          1. Anonymous

            Agreed – but as I said, they’re not paying interns and they’re not going to.

  23. HR Consultant

    I so agree with Alison!! So many of these “internships” are little more than community service to a school or non-profit with whom company leaders have a relationship. The interns often aren’t hired because the company didn’t really need the added staff person in the first place…

    1. Mike C.

      I wouldn’t consider an internship to a for-profit company, like the one mentioned in Alison’s article, “community service”. Why do you see it that way?

      And even if it was, why should community service be a requirement to be able to pay one’s own bills?

      1. HR Consultant

        My thought isn’t that it’s community service for the intern, but rather the company’s service to the community to offer these internships…

        1. KellyK

          Only if they meet the legal requirements of an internship. It’s the exact opposite of “community service” to have someone work to benefit you and not pay them.

  24. Brton3

    I strenuously disagree with this opinion, and I think it’s just another example of “oh well, that’s just how things are now” thinking. We don’t need to push back on behalf of the rights of workers; this is just how things are now. Companies don’t need to train inexperienced new hires; they need to just have them work for free for a while and then move on somewhere else. Companies don’t need to invest in workers’ pay, or development; who cares about that? This is just the way things are now.

  25. Mike C.

    Here’s the other thing I don’t understand:

    Why would an employer consider an unpaid internship useful in the first place? By law, they’re not allowed to do anything of value to the company, so they aren’t gaining experience that way. And if a company is dedicating employees to teach unpaid interns things, why would any company pay money for that when they are legally unable to gain value from the experience?

    As linked below (and above), data shown here supports the idea than many businesses don’t value the experience either.

    1. KellyK

      I think what actually happens is that they *are* doing work that benefits the company, legal or not.

      1. Michael

        Of course they are. Why would a company bring on individuals if they did not benefit in some way?

    2. AnonHR

      I think that’s the problem we’re facing. I can’t think of any internship I’ve worked, hired for, or know about that truly provides a learning experience that the company didn’t gain immediate advantage from. It’s all well and good that college students get the experience for their resume, but most companies (from their own point of view) are not providing training/learning experiences, they’re getting free labor.

      I’m not advocating for well-paid internships, and I think non-profits should be exempt, but minimum wage is nominal for most companies, but definitely not nominal for interns. We pay our interns and always consider ourselves to be getting a bargain. They get useful experience and exposure, and we don’t have to make as many tough decisions about workload/FT hires.

    3. Melissa

      It’s not that they’re not allowed to do anything of value to the company. The net benefit has to be to the intern, which simply means that benefit to the intern has to outweigh benefit to the company – not that there can’t be any company benefit at all.

  26. Joey

    If you’ve ever tried to recruit for unpaid interns you’ll realize this is mostly a moot issue. Its damn hard finding interns to work for free. Even for very good employers with experience that can get you a damn good job. Because when you think about it unpaid interns actually have to expend money to work for free. I’ve gone all out to recruit for unpaid internships and its a rare occasion that I get more than a few resumes. And these were for interns that would be exposed to and work on multimillion dollar projects or accounts.

    1. Mike C.

      And these were for interns that would be exposed to and work on multimillion dollar projects or accounts.

      They would be working on multimillion dollar accounts and you aren’t willing to pay them minimum wage? Really!?

      1. Joey

        Most of the time, yes. But the project manager was convinced that interns would be begging for the opportunity so he didn’t need to. Once he saw that you get what you pay for……

  27. KellyK

    Work that benefits a company (as opposed to a non-profit, for which internships could just be volunteer positions) should be paid. Period.

    That said, I can see it being reasonable to separate out the “training” portion of an internship from the “grunt work” portion, such that the intern is getting paid for the time that benefits the company but not the time that benefits them. (Actually *enforcing* that would be a whole different story, since it isn’t as though the laws about unpaid internships are enforced now.)

  28. Paige

    at 23, I’ve held several flexible internships that allowed me to also work part time while in school. My supervisors expected me to work hard, but they also asked for feedback throughout the internship and made sure it was an educational experience. But this case is about Fox Searchlight, and I can assure you that film internships, specifically, are different.

    I graduated from a small speciality (liberal) arts school in Boston. Film is such a competitive major at my alma mater, we have a separate campus in LA with internship placement and a summer film program in Prague. Film internships are often more than full time, with hours stretched long into the night. Those kids do real work in relation to their chosen industry, and it’s a lifestyle comittment. (No sleep for however many weeks/months, then a few months off). My boyfriend was a multi award-winning student director on campus, but he could never afford to take one of those unpaid production internships. Personal anecdote, I know, but it was really hard to watch after four years.

    The career exposure is incredibly valuable in any industry, but in regards to the particular case being discussed, I think they made the right call.

  29. Anonymous

    I agree with unpaid internships, even after graduation, but ONLY if they are actually internships and not a front for free grunt-work that a company simply doesn’t want to pay an employee to do.

    I had an internship where, unfortunately, my duties fell pretty much in the latter category. I felt like I was being taken advantage of, and that the company simply wanted an unpaid body to do more work as opposed to actually teaching me about the field that I was interested in. Unfortunately, I pretty much had to suck it up and complete the duration of the internship because I simply couldn’t burn that bridge. In hindsight, though, I thought taking that internship was actually a good thing because it taught me to be more cautious in searching for both internships and jobs, and to make sure that the duties that the position entails matches my objectives.

    It seems like I learned that lesson well from that internship, because the one I had after that was from a much better company, where my objectives were clearly laid out ahead of time by week and where I am actually learning things in my field. It was an internship that I not only enjoyed, but also would highly recommend for anybody who wants to break into that field.

    I know that it sucks to do things without getting paid, but sometimes you need to simply find any means you can to gain experience. You just have to be very careful to not get into an internship where you will be taken advantage of.

  30. Jeff

    There are a number of reasons why I disagree with this post, but the biggest reason is the last paragraph. With the amount of debt that students leave college and grad school with now, combined with higher cost of living, and the lack of good paying jobs straight out of college, I would hands down take a paying job over a non-paying one, even if I didn’t get experience relevant to my field. And I say that speaking as someone having graduated from grad school in 2010. It took me two years to find a full-time job that was in my field (which, yes, did require a Master’s degree), and with almost $50,000 in student debt, I didn’t have the luxury of taking an unpaid internship, even with grace periods. I also had other bills to pay along with trying to find a place to live. And I came out of school with a relatively low amount of school debt; most of my colleagues had $100,000+ in student loan debt along with massive credit card debt usually, car payments, rent payments, utilities, etc. So sure, if you have the financial flexibility to take an unpaid internship straight out of school, more power to you. But to think that the average student can even leave college and afford to take an unpaid internship in the hopes of *maybe* landing a paying job when it’s completed? That seems a bit out of touch. Most students and recent grads that I know will take any job they can get if it means they can pay bills and barely skate by, regardless of whether it fits into their long-term career goals. The last thing they’ll do is take an unpaid internship unless it’s an absolute requirement for their job field.

    1. twentymilehike

      Jeff, I think what you wrote is a really great synopsis of how life just is. I’d have loved to get a graduate degree and do something else with my life, but I wasn’t born into a situation where I could make that happen. That’s fine.

      My husband wasn’t in a situation to even go to college. He became a skilled mechanic instead, made a lot of money winning off-road races, was injured and became disabled. While we both work, I pull extra weight to compensate for his disability. And that’s fine, too.

      Neither of us thought that $100k in debt was worth it for us to get that education. It’s not supposed to be fair, sometimes you just can’t afford stuff, and that’s your life. That is also totally fine.

      I think my point is that life takes you on a path that you don’t get to plan out piece by piece. It’s not the end of the world if someone doesn’t take an internship because they can’t find one that works for them. A lot of people end up sounding like they are whining because they can’t do what they want.

      My husband doesn’t think it wasn’t fair that he had to become a mechanic instead of an accountant. He was really good at it, and enjoyed it … and the world still needs good mechanics. We can’t all go to college and fit into this mold because the world won’t run that way.

      There isn’t really a way to across-the-board neutralize the advantages that exist in this world, so we might as well just be okay with it and do what works for us individually.

      Sorry if that was a bit of a rant! I’m feeling philosophical today :)

  31. Anonymous

    Instead perhaps employers could offer new grads apprenticeships — lower pay in exchange for learning and experience. It’s just a semantic difference, but the idea of apprenticeship implies more of a commitment on the employers’ part.

      1. Anonymous

        Apprentices usually don’t have benefits…entry level jobs do. So, no, not really like an entry level job at all.

        I wouldn’t think of apprenticing a receptionist, but web programmer or graphic artist, yes, absolutely. The mentorship is implied by the relationship of master/apprentice. Though, pretty sure I am no master, lol.

        1. Melissa

          Apprentices usually do, indeed, have benefits. My father and brother have both been apprentices in skilled trades, as well as many of their friends, and they were all paid decent salaries as well as benefits. My brother still is an apprentice and his job currently not only pays for his health insurance and contributes to his retirement; they are also paying for him to take college classes.

          An apprentice in the skilled trades is just their terminology for entry-level. You come in with the basics and you learn on the job; after a set number of years you advance to journeyman, then master.

  32. Anonymous

    Also, something else that I think employers should be ethically bound to do, even if there is no way of enforcing it.

    DO NOT say that there is a chance of your unpaid internship leading to a permanent job if you have NO INTENTION from the very beginning of hiring any interns, or if the budget doesn’t allow for it. Yes, sometimes employers hire interns wanting to promote them from within, but things happen and they can’t do that, but I think it’s plain wrong to flatly lie to a candidate from the beginning. Part of the reason I took my current unpaid internship was because the director, now my boss, told me that I couldn’t be hired for a paying position due to budget constraints but that I could sit on an advisory board. That honesty was something I respected, and I feel like I can trust her throughout the duration of my internship.

    At a job fair, I spoke with a company I was interested in and they said they were only taking interns. I asked if it was possible for an intern to get hired and she said that it happened to one intern. When I asked her for the term length she said there wasn’t one but said intern got hired after about a year and a half. That was an unpaid internship, mind you. That’s way too long to be “working” for free.

  33. Mike C.

    Here’s one fore for folks to chew on. My current, well paying job gives me a ton of amazing experience, experience that is industry and company specific. If it’s ok to pay interns in the currency of valuable experience, why isn’t that ok for anyone else?

    What’s that you say? You work long hours and provide important contributions to your organization? Well so do interns, otherwise why would anyone hire them?

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander after all.

    1. H. Vane

      Absolutely true. The ‘it’s for your own good!’ argument doesn’t sit well with me. Worker exploitation is shameful no matter whether it’s happening to some inexperienced college kid who thinks that this is the ticket to a paying job (it’s not) or if it’s the illegal migrant worker that gets paid $3/hr under the table because the business can get away with it. It may provide some benefit to the worker, but I think we can all agree that taking advantage of someone’s situation to earn a dime is unethical.

      Honestly, I consider unpaid internships a screening tool. If a company offers them, I have not interest in working for that company. They clearly don’t value/respect their employees the way I think they should.

  34. TRB

    I couldn’t read all of these before I posted (or else I would’ve forgotten what I wanted to say!) but I am a fan of internships and have no issues with whether or not they are paid. I will say that the unpaid internships – and even the paid ones – should have the type of employer that will offer some incentive like gift cards, networking opportunities, stipend for travel, etc. The only full time internships I’ve ever seen were paid or were in place of a semester in college. Every other internship I had was for two-three days per week for a max of 16 hours. There is ample time to have a job. I just feel that if the employer is not going to offer money, they should provide an exceptional experience for the intern.

    Also depending on what industry you’re in, there are tons of national programs that offer internships and will pay for housing and such if you get accepted.

  35. ThursdaysGeek

    How is an upaid internship significantly different than the experience my friend had 30 years ago? She was hired by a motel, and for the probation period (3 months?) she worked as many hours as she wanted and was paid less than minimum wage. After she passed probabtion, she was moved to minimum wage and significantly cut hours, and he hired another probationary employee for lots of hours.

    She got experience that she could put on a resume. It wasn’t at any career she wanted, but at least she could show she could work and keep a job. She couldn’t complain, because then she would lose the job she had. And he got to ‘train’ a lot of hungry students — there were always more students who would take the job on those terms.

    So there are plenty of people who will work under those conditions. There was a benefit to her (half a job is better than no loaf) and to her employer (plenty of cheap labor). Does that really make it right?

    No, it’s not exactly the same, but…I don’t know…it sure has a similar feel.

    1. Greg

      I dunno, it sounds like what happened to your friend was illegal. So yes, I agree, it’s not all that different from unpaid internships. :-)

      1. Felicia

        I think the only slight difference is that she got paid minimum wage after 3 months at that company when most interns don’t get that, but very good comparison:)

  36. RMS

    I was sad to read your article, but really happy with all the commenters who have posted counter-arguments far more eloquent than mine.

    One thing I see as a compromise is regulation of internships. It seems like you see these unpaid internships to be less than 20 hours a week and in no way replacing paid positions. In my experience in New York City, I saw tons of internships posted on Craigslist that were *clearly* for unpaid receptionist/personal assistant positions. I knew two people personally who were let go from paid positions and replaced by unpaid interns. I went through this experience myself, working 50+ hours a week unpaid as an office manager for a literary agent. She was angry that I wanted time off to get married and fired me, so all that free work and I wasn’t even able to put her as a reference.

    I feel like there needs to be some legal protections in place, because it is really like the wild west out there. I think that legally restricting weekly hours worked to under 20 hours would be a great step because it would be too much of a hassle to constantly find two unpaid people to cover a position that is critical enough to a company that it ought to be a full-time paid position. And just regulating it, making companies fill out paperwork and reporting their internships will hold them more accountable and weed out the random scammers.

    1. Liz T

      That’s a GREAT idea. My last internship, for a non-profit, did just that–almost every internship was held by two part-time people. (The one that was full-time at least came with a MetroCard!) I worked three days a week there, and they were basically flexible around my tutoring and dog-walking. I viewed it as really smart on their part, because they got quality, experienced people. They treated us with respect, gave us weekly informational seminars with different staff members, and gave us valuable perks.

      I learned A TON. I dream of one day overseeing an internship program just so I can have it done this way.

      1. Felicia

        I think that sounds like the ideal way for an internship to work, and I think all internships should work this way.

    2. Briggs

      Yes, I think regulation is key. There are internships where the net benefit is to the intern in terms of experience and knowledge, in which case you could clearly argue for it being unpaid. The problem comes when the net benefit is to the employer and they are taking advantage of the “intern”.

    3. jesicka309

      YES. My own internship (I’m in Australia, so different laws, but still) was unpaid. I did my internship during my summer holidays – 4 weeks, 9-1 every day, with occasional switches where I did 1-5, or weekends. This allowed me to work my usual part time gig that I did throughout the school year after the internship, and I got loads of valuable experience.
      I feel like any internship that requires 40+ hours per week isn’t really an internship – 40 hours a week is a job! That is full time hours…if they regulated the amount of unpaid hours that an intern could work per week, it would benefit everybody. If there was enough work for 40+ hours, they’d have to get two interns = more interns getting a shot.
      And honestly, if you’re in such dire financial straights that

      1. jesicka309

        Wow hit submit too early.

        If you’re having such financial trouble that you can’t make ends meet for 4 weeks to get experience, then you have WAY bigger problems that whether the internship pays you or not. There are many different ways to get experience beyond an internship (volunteering etc.), and in the same way that you can’t have a fancy car unless you work hard and save up the money, you can’t get that dream job without working hard and saving up so that you can live on a little less for a few weeks. If I only had enough money for an average car, I’d buy that, not moan about how Joe Smith down the block gets a fancy one. If I could only afford to do the 4 week internship instead of the 6 month one, well, you make the sacrifice.

        Sure, some people have rich families and get their cars and jobs given to them, but that’s their right. If I work really hard and earn lots of money, I can do that for my kids too.

  37. Greg

    Alison, here’s my question for you: Do you support minimum wage laws? Because I fail to see how your argument about unpaid internships couldn’t just as easily be repurposed by Wal-Mart to explain why they shouldn’t have to pay their entry-level employees (“Our unpaid greeters gain valuable work experience, and a number of them have taken advantage of the opportunity to graduate to paid roles as shelf stockers and cashiers.”) Or to put it another way, why should a 20-year-old college dropout working at McDonald’s over the summer be legally entitled to wages while a 20-year-old Harvard student working at Conde Nast gets nothing?

    But of course, the ultimate victims of unpaid internships aren’t the students who get them (most of whom can rely on parental support to make up for lost wages). It’s the students who miss out on those opportunities because they can’t afford them, thereby further perpetuating inequality.

    1. doreen

      Exactly. And if there aren’t regulations for unpaid internships , how do you distinguish the 3000 hours of supervised practice my daughter will need to to be fully licensed from an internship? Right now, it’s easy. The employer gets the benefit of someone handling a caseload, the only burden on the employer is to provide one hour of supervision per week (which they probably provide to fully licensed staff) , and the supervisee is getting experience, not training so he or she has to be paid. Allow unpaid internships where the net benefit is to the employer, where the intern does work normally done by employees and grunt work instead of training is acceptable? I guess my daughter will have to do a couple of years of full-time work for free if that happens.

  38. Katie

    Some internships would never happen if they were paid. The interns I’ve worked with are getting a net benefit being here. They don’t have any practical knowledge from school and have to be shown how to do everything which takes a lot of time out of the day for the people who manage them. They gain valuable on the job training. If we had to pay them we would have no interns.

    MANY of our best interns get hired to entry level positions once they graduate.

    We don’t make any money off the work that the interns do. They are given practice work to do that mirrors the actual work we do. Nothing they do actually gets turned into the clients with the exception of they are occasionally allowed to do filing or data entry. We never bill the time for this though to the clients.

    I work in an Advertising Agency.

  39. And Now For A Curveball

    I should admit that I stopped reading the comments after about 50, so this may have been said already or I might be missing something … But here’s how I’m reading this argument:

    – It is much easier for an economically well off student/graduate to take an unpaid internship, giving them an advantage.
    – Many people think this advantage is unfair, and contributes to the continued imbalance of opportunities for wealthy students.
    – Alison thinks the laws should change to make it easier to allow employers to “hire” more unpaid interns.

    A system that makes career advancing opportunities easier for one economic group guarantees that the power imbalance will remain. I personally got a lot of great experience from my one unpaid internship: 40 hours a week at an architectural firm during the summer between my jr and sr year. If I hadn’t been able to live with my parents, I would not have been able to take advantage of this opportunity.

    I’m now going to do something really controversial: compare being poor to being a woman. Let’s compare getting into med school in the 1960’s to taking an unpaid internship today. It’s not a perfect comparison, but bear with me.

    Now, a number of highly motivated women have worked really really hard to overcome their disadvantage of being female in a male dominated practice, and all the prejudice and social pressure that came with it. They got into med school in the 1960s DESPITE a climate that made it very difficult. They worked harder than their male counterparts to achieve the same goal.

    Similarly, a number of highly motivated poor people have worked really really hard to overcome their disadvantage of being poor in a situation that favors wealthy people. They found ways to work around the difficult schedule and financial pressure. They took an unpaid internship while also working a full time job to support their families (or themselves). They worked harder than their wealthy counterparts to achieve the same goal.

    Now … which of these situations created so much social outrage that we developed laws and strategies to make sure the inequality was leveled? Why does the other situation not create the same social outrage?

    Here’s why I think: because people see being poor as the poor person’s “fault”. I think this is where the underlying assumption lies, and I think it’s a crappy one. Yes, you can change your economic situation a lot easier than you can change your gender, but does that mean we should support a system that encourages and perpetuates economic inequality?

    Personally, I think we can find a better way. I think that if unpaid internships were totally unregulated, the power and opportunity imbalance would grow.

    I actually think the way the law is written now, which essentially tries to treat an unpaid internship like a college class, is fine. I think we should try harder to uphold that standard because I think that’s a win-win situation: free education for the intern, free help for the employer.

    1. Greg

      [i]I actually think the way the law is written now, which essentially tries to treat an unpaid internship like a college class, is fine. I think we should try harder to uphold that standard because I think that’s a win-win situation: free education for the intern, free help for the employer.[/i]

      Actually, the current system makes it even worse. First of all, many companies pretend that the gruntwork they’re dumping on their interns is “educational”. Even worse, schools buy this BS and *charge* students for the free work they’re doing.

      Years ago, I had a potential MBA intern who I wanted to hire for the summer. I would have gladly paid her, but my company had a policy against paid internships. She told me (not at all unreasonably), “I can swing living in New York for the summer. I can swing working for free. But I can’t afford to pay my school three credits’ worth of tuition for the right to do it.”

      1. And Now For A Curveball

        Ah, yeah, that’s why I was saying that treating an unpaid internship *like* a class was ok. In other words, the education IS the payment. Paying FOR an internship is a different thing entirely, imo.

  40. the Intern Queen

    Sorry if people have already made this point, but I don’t feel like scrolling through 200 plus comments. Your argument hinges on the main idea that if companies don’t have enough money to pay interns, then they won’t hire any at all. So if this is the case, then yes, I think in fields that are hard to break into, companies should offer them unpaid.
    However, most arguments against unpaid internships argue that companies DO have enough money (I’m guessing this is the argument judges used to decide cases like this), they just want to save on labor. I’m biased since I have worked a total of seven plus internships that we ALL unpaid (how many have you worked, AAM?), and I can tell you, that some of them were very beneficial to me and others I could have easily done without. I can also speak for certain when I say that interns do complete work that should be finished by someone on staff–which is illegal. So I agree with you based on your assumption, but I don’t think your assumption is true in most cases. Would it really kill companies to pay their interns minimum wage? I don’t think so.

  41. CP

    I am a current graduate student. I have very mixed feelings about unpaid internships, but I do think they should be legal. The unpaid internships/volunteering I’ve done (public health-related) between undergrad and grad school were for non-profits and a county health department (not impacted by the law anyway, if I understand correctly) and I saw and heard plenty about their budget issues (they never could have paid me). I would never take a full-time unpaid internship, but combined with (paid) tutoring it worked out. They’ve given me a lot to talk about in interviews and provided references, thus helping me get paid internships in grad school.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit

      To be clear, most unpaid internships with nonprofits are legal now. Alison is arguing that unpaid internships with for-profit companies should also be legal.

      1. Felicia

        In Canada most unpaid internships (even with non profits) are technically illegal, but illegal internships still happen all the time. I think there needs to be better regulation of internships (making only things 20 hours or less unpaid and requiring companies to document what their interns are actually doing and ensuring that they’re learning) are good suggestions for regulation. Banning something outright probably won’t help as much as regulation, and the current internships system is to easy to exploit people with. The internships that Alison is arguing for are fairly good,, but there are just as many internships where the intern doesn’t learn anything while working 40+ hours a week doing grunt work or displacing paid employees for free. While that still happens (and boy does that still happen), there needs to be more regulation.

  42. dejavu2

    These comments have been very interesting to read. Whether or not unpaid internships even provide any value to the unpaid interns, these positions are clearly here to stay. However, society requires a solution. The current law is too rarely enforced, arguably because it is so removed from the reality of internships. Reform is needed, and by reform I mean more effective government oversight and regulation.

    It’s true that many internships provide interns with value, but it’s also true that many internships are exploitative and oppressive. I somehow managed to have what was pretty much the world’s most exploitative internship while I was in law school. Totally unpaid, my “assignments” were idiotic and had no relevance to the practice of law, I was “on call” at all times and so was forbidden from taking on any sort of paid work elsewhere. I ate two meals a day: one bean burrito for “brunch,” and another for dinner. The internship was supposed to come with free housing, but they reneged on that literally the night before I arrived, and I spent 10 weeks sofa surfing. This was with a respected non-profit organization. Comparable law student interns at comparable non-profits were provided adequate stipends, which I know because my boss made the mistake of informing me an intern mixer. I know my experience was unusually bad, but I’m sure plenty of other people have these kinds of horror stories, and really no one should. I mean, I survived and everything, and millions of other people experience that kind of homelessness and hunger or worse every day with no end date in sight. Still, it was horrible, and no one should have to experience that – particularly if minimal government oversight would easily prevent it.

    Also, I’ll tell you what: that internship taught me to never work for free again. I heard a piece of advice from show business once: “No” is your ticket to the next level. I think that’s true for a lot of things. I know this sounds insane, and maybe even feeds into to people’s worst feelings about millennial, but recent grads need to demonstrate that they value their own time and work before they can expect others to value their time and work. Don’t let your resume say that you are willing to take anything that comes your way. Seek out interesting volunteer positions instead of unpaid internships. You have to do it in a way that is smart, but if you do it right, it can really open up doors.

    1. Lindsay J

      The point about valuing your time is interesting because that is one thing that I’ve read over-and-over about becoming a freelancer in creative industries – don’t work for free.

      A lot of people trying to develop a photography or graphic design company think that they should work for free in order to get pieces for their portfolio or get their names out there. However, if you work for free it just shows that you are open for working for free, and that you don’t think your work is good enough to charge for.

      Doing unpaid work often doesn’t get your name out there any better than any other type of advertising. In addition, any new clients you do get from doing unpaid work are likely to be cheap and will expect you to work for free since you’ve shown you were willing to do it before. The people you get from doing this are those looking to pinch pennies, rather than those who are looking for a quality product.

      The people who are looking for a quality product with look at your work and think that it must not be worth much because you are not charging anything. They are more likely to hire a person with similar skills that charges more than you do, because they’ll perceive that person’s skills to be worth the premium they’re charging, while they’ll feel your work must be flawed in some way otherwise you wouldn’t be giving it away for free.

  43. Anonymous

    I went to a school where it was common to work up to three paid internships before graduating (they were called co-ops), but usually because a paid internship costs the company some money, in some fields you were SOL you hadn’t already worked an unpaid internship or volunteered for a political campaign.

    What are the chances of seeing more paid internships that’ll actually take kids with no working experience?

    Personally, I think an unpaid internship is fine as long as it’s part-time, allowing interns to take side jobs that do pay, or go to school during the internship. Internships that are, say, 30 hours or more per week should at least pay a stipend to help over living expenses.

      1. Lindsay J

        My little brother went to Drexel and did a co-op with a water company.

        I always liked their co-op model because I do feel as though getting experience before graduating is important (in my case it led me to change fields when I did student teaching, hated it, and realized I didn’t want to wake up and face being a teacher for the next 45 years of my life). However, IIRC their co-ops were paid and were scheduled into their curriculum so you weren’t giving your time to a company for free, weren’t delaying classes or compromising school work to take them, and could still take out student loans to cover your costs as you were still enrolled in school.

  44. Pussyfooter, aka. OneoftheMichelles

    Hi Alison,
    No time to read comments today; I’ll see what’s in the discussion in a couple days. I agree with your reasons for approving unpaid internships. Curiously, I recently heard on NPR that unpaid internships rarely lead to paid work, as expected.

    If only a tiny fraction of unpaid interns really gained in marketability, while a huge number of people went through this effort with a clear expectation of job-valued experience, would that make a difference?

    Does anyone know the stats on this?

    1. AB

      I think you touched the key issue here, as the answer will prove Alison’s argument right or wrong.

      Alison wrote:

      “For many recent graduates, unpaid internships – even the ones that consist mainly of grunt work – are the difference between having a résumé with some experience on it or having an empty résumé that will go straight into an employer’s reject pile.”

      But the ultimate question isn’t whether unpaid internships help put some experience in your resume, but rather, if that experience do translate into a higher rate of hiring for people with unpaid internships.

      It won’t help much if the only thing that unpaid internship does is to avoid a resume going “straight into an employer’s reject pile”. What if your resume stays in the “may be pile” only to be rejected once the company finds plenty of other candidates with more experience?

      To me, the easiest way to prove which side is right is to get the statistics of how many people of the same cohort with unpaid internships get job offers vs. without internships.

  45. anon

    The only thing I was thinking while reading this argument was “based on what evidence?” You cite no significant sources to support your stance vs reports that other people have linked for the other side. I really enjoy reading this blog, but the article itself plus your defense in the comments only showed me that you’re coming from a huge place of privilege.

  46. Chris

    Don’t really have too much of a strong opinion on unpaid internships (haven’t seen any in my field). What do bother me are:

    -Internships that require you to be a student getting a Bachelor’s / Master’s to be a candidate for
    -Internships with a requirement of “1-2 years relevant work experience”
    -Internships requiring both points

    1. Anonymous

      “Internships that require you to be a student getting a Bachelor’s / Master’s to be a candidate for”

      Wouldn’t you be looking for “jobs” after getting a degree? I’m not seeing the problem

      “Internships with a requirement of “1-2 years relevant work experience””

      If their ideal candidate is a senior level student, that’s really not out of the question (assuming 3 summers = 1 year, for instance)

      1. Chris

        “Wouldn’t you be looking for “jobs” after getting a degree? I’m not seeing the problem”

        This entire thread is addressing this issue. You can’t get a “job” without experience (the fundamental reason why people would bother with unpaid internships). Internships are a way to get experience: probably the only way for entry level people in specific fields. If choosing a person to hire is about finding the best candidate, there is no reason to automatically exclude college graduates.

        “If their ideal candidate is a senior level student, that’s really not out of the question (assuming 3 summers = 1 year, for instance)”

        If the ideal candidate has had 1-2 years experience, fine. No objections there. The problem is when it becomes a requirement to have, or in other words, an automatic rejection in online application systems if you put in 0. While the experience is a good thing, at that point, what the candidate knows and what they’ve accomplished matters more than relevant experience (1-2 years is not that much). It’s an unnecessary filter for people trying to get into the field.

  47. New York girl

    First time commenter. Obviously a very popular topic.

    I have to say- I am strongly against unpaid internships. I think the people who are proponents are not the ones actually working the internships. And you say that grunt work is better than nothing – well, is it? Because its not really experience. Its just being an unpaid lackey.

    I have worked in several unpaid or barely paid internships here in Manhattan and I can tell you, they are not being filled by people from unprivileged backgrounds, rather wealthy kids from Long Island who still live with their parents.

    This topic makes me so angry. You say that companies wouldn’t hire anyone if they had to pay – so what? They are doing us a favor by paying nothing?

    Most internships are not structured to teach, rather someone to do odd jobs and tasks that don’t carry much weight.

    I am really disappointed because I enjoy reading this blog but this stance is completely wrong and I think should re-think.

  48. Frenchie

    I do believe internships are great, both for the intern and company (great way to get first pick on potential great employees), and should be encouraged, but I remain unconvinced that the way to do so is by not paying interns at all.

    #1 Paid internships have been made mandatory in various other countries, including France, and the number of internships offered have not decreased.

    #2 Some unpaid internships have turned into a junkyard for all grunt work and stupid projects. Because of this, a horde of HR peeps have now decided against trying to figure out whether you actually learned something at your last internship and now consider all internships to not be “real work experience”, thus negating the whole “internships give you work experience you may otherwise not get” argument.

    I have no trouble slaving myself away for 6 months for free and/or cheap if that gives me a fighting chance of finding a job after, but many times, let me insist, MANY times, I have been rejected, as were a wide number of my friends, because our “experience” with the job was acquired through an internship. “Oh, you mean this was not a real job, this was an internship … *scratches the job out of my resume*”. Are you serious ? A minute ago, you seemed really impressed with my accomplishment but because I mentioned I did not have a full-time permanent contract, it has now all been negated ?

    1. Anonymous

      My experience with internships in other countries is the opposite. I used to work for a European company and once proposed hiring an MBA intern and paying them 10-15K for the summer (which in my experience is low). My European bosses wouldn’t even consider the idea saying that was way too much and that the interns they hired normally worked for free or a very small stipend.

      In our case, we would have thought up a problem for the intern to work on that could be addressed during the time period we had them. With no intern, the projects just wouldn’t get done. We wouldn’t have them doing the normal work because they would soon leave and we would still need a way to get that work done. So they really only did side projects that no one else had the time to do. Most of the time those projects never went anywhere after the interns left.

  49. V

    A few weeks ago, the question came up of what to do if an interviewee gives you a great idea, but doesn’t get the job. It was decided (including Alison’s perspective) that it’s not ethical to use that idea in this case: http://www.askamanager.org/2013/06/a-job-candidate-sent-an-invoice-for-her-interview.html. Why is the issue of unpaid internships any different? You can’t ethically use an idea from someone when they spend an hour at an interview and present one good idea, but it is okay to use the work that they put into your company for months without compensating them?

  50. V

    I disagree. The person is only consenting because they are held hostage to the system. It doesn’t make it right to take advantage of that, and if you are using someone’s talents and ideas, you should compensate them appropriately.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I understand that point of view (although I disagree with it), but it’s a different thing than a job candidate having their work stolen and used without permission.

      1. Greg

        OK, as long as we’re drawing moral distinctions, what’s the difference between a company that hires full-time workers without paying them minimum wage and one that hires unpaid interns?

        1. anon-2

          The one that’s paying below minimum wage is actually paying out money.

          If you can find someone who will work for free under the guise of “this will boost your job finding chances” … that’s what this is about.

          The bottom line. The executive bonus.

  51. rlm

    Lots of interesting commentary here today! I am still a bit on the fence on this one. AAM makes great points, but so do the majority of comments arguing against unpaid internships. I’d love to see a study done on the socioeconomic breakdown of those who are able to acquire unpaid internships. I’m also curious as to how many of the unpaid internships offered have full-time vs part-time hours.

    I never had an internship, but when I was going to college I was working a full-time plus a part-time job to make ends meet – and it was rough. Yes, it can be done – but I believe I could have learned much more if I had had more time and energy to focus.

  52. Shoshie

    I agree with a lot of what you say on this blog, but I can’t agree with this. The fact is that making unpaid internships a standard is essentially extorting free labor out of entry level workers. We’re moving towards a system where there are no more entry level jobs. Which is ridiculous.

    I also don’t entirely understand your argument that, if the positions that are unpaid right now become paid positions, they’ll simply go to more experienced workers. If the internships are paid, but not at a very high level (say, minimum wage or slightly higher), then presumably, more experienced workers who qualify for a higher-paying position won’t be particularly interested.

    I’m a chemist, and even the undergraduate students who work in academic labs for the summer are paid a stipend. And they’re not actually expected to produce anything useful (though many of them do). It doesn’t matter. They work, they get paid. That’s how it should be.

    1. Lindsay J

      In this economy, though, workers who ordinarily would not be interested in a low-paying position will be, because right now they are either unemployed or working in a job out of their field. So it’s not a choice between working an entry-level or a mid-level position, it’s a choice between working an entry-level position or at Walmart.

    2. Confused

      “We’re moving towards a system where there are no more entry level jobs. Which is ridiculous.”

  53. Editor

    Having read all the comments available now, I think one thing that is clear is that a lot of people understand that luck and circumstances play a big part in shaping a person’s career, starting with schooling, college, and work experience. Even commenters who want people to be treated equitably at college understand it doesn’t always happen. They just draw the line at unpaid internships.

    While I understand there is unfairness, the possible unfairness of an unpaid internship sticks in my craw because I think we need to give everybody the chance at move upward, which is an American ideal, and I think job hunting after college is a good time to reset the luck meter and hope that some heretofore unlucky people will get lucky. The problem I have with unpaid internships at businesses and affluent nonprofits is that once people are doing “work” for an employer who is paying all other workers, then the employer should be paying at least minimum wage to the intern. If the employer will allow job shadowing, where someone comes in for one day a week for a month and gets to observe how the business operates and learn more about the skills people use, then that’s unpaid. If the employer wants an intern to come in and do various tasks without investing staff time in training or mentoring, then the intern needs to be paid because the intern’s job is not to subsidize the employer.

    In the last century, employers outsourced training to trade schools and high schools, then to colleges. Employers spent less and less on apprenticeships and training. Then technology reduced the number of entry level jobs such as basic clerical jobs or manufacturing scut work — there were no more copy boys at newspapers, there were no more typing pools, there were fewer people on the factory floor as parts moved along on belts or raised tracks, there were fewer people stocking merchandise as just-in-time shipping became important, there were fewer people shuffling paper as electronic document management increased, and so on. A lot of entry-level jobs disappeared.

    The opportunities to get a foot in the door in a lowly but paid position decreased. I think an argument can be made that internships were an affluent, white-collar answer to the decline in the number of entry-level white collar jobs, and so unpaid internships reflect the ethos of the white-collar workers designing those internships at their businesses.

    I think employers need to face the reality that further outsourcing the training of entry-level workers cannot be done unless the employer pays higher than average wages and outsources the training to businesses that pay less. If Shavon has applied for an office job and the interviewer wants to know if Shavon will show up on time, then the interviewer is going to have to call the pizza place where she worked to find out if she came in on time, and if Wakeen is the other applicant, then the interviewer is going to have to call the manager at the store in the mall and see if Wakeen showed up on time. The part-time or temp job from high school or college will be the initial training ground, and the interviewer will have to accept that an entry-level applicant won’t have racked up four months of unpaid work doing data entry and fetching coffee in the interviewer’s business category.

    Employers can already test applicants to see if they can use the software. I would be okay with some system that lets an applicant work for a day or two to show his or her ability, as long as there was some set-up to pay minimum wage. Maybe we should be looking a system that allows employers to have someone work, say, up to 30 hours as a tryout where the employer can evaluate performance and has to pay minimum wage but perhaps is forgiven all payroll taxes or something so there’s no onerous paperwork other than one filing to record the wages (and allow the government to look for patterns of abuse, such as having 2o people “try out” for one job opening).

    There’s also no reason the businesses offering unpaid internships cannot instead work with colleges from which they draw employees to design some survey courses which talk about the reality of the jobs students will be facing, including talks from hiring managers, case studies of typical business projects in the field, and so on. These orientations would be good possibilities for massive, open online courses or blogs like Ask a Manager (but field-specific) that could serve anyone interested in entering that career field regardless of economic background. Businesses could do YouTube orientation videos if they wanted to. Social media provides many options for companies to provide information about what their lower-level employees do and need to know without requiring someone to get a possibly lucky but definitely unpaid internship.

  54. Sarah

    Unpaid internships are legal. The illegality and ensuing lawsuits as of recent stem from ignoring the rules of what an internship entails. As you mention, breaking the law is commonplace. But it is also grounds for suing an employer, as it should be. At one point in time sexual harassment was commonplace, but it is now less commonplace because it is illegal. Defending illegal practices by companies, when it benefits for profits at the cost of those struggling to make ends meet is ludicrous at best… You should be ashamed of yourself Alison. You stand against the people.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Thanks, but no shaming is needed. It’s possible for reasonable people to reach different conclusions on this one. There’s no need to make it personal simply because you disagree.

      I have a long and very transparent record of advocating for fairness when it comes to employment issues. I simply call this one differently than you do.

      1. Sarah

        Just to clarify, are you arguing to change the law? The only reason the recent lawsuits held up in court is because the internships violated the law. This is not an opinion piece about how we all “feel” about internships. There are LAWS meant to protect people that were broken. If as a society we believe these laws are invalid we should work to change them. Arguing that laws should just be ignored sets a dangerous precedent, which will make sense to you if you understand our judicial system.

          1. Sarah

            So what would be the legal parameters of your proposed law? How would you define an internship?

            1. Felicia

              +1. In any law there needs to be very specific definitions of an internship can be, or so many companies think of it as having someone work for them for free. I think those definitions of what an internship is need to be more specific than they actually are. One restriction I would theoretically have is to make the internship 20 hours or less, since so many are 40-50 hours. There should also be a restriction in number of weeks – I’ve seen far too many unpaid internships that are 8 months unpaid for 40+ hours a week and only for those who have already graduated. Those types of internships I would never support.

              1. Sarah

                Hi Felicia, Thanks for your reply! I agree with you and actually an internship is already defined as a legally unpaid position under our current laws. The problem is that the companies using interns aren’t following the labor laws pertaining to the current standards. ALISON has written in her article that internships should be legal, which they are, so I’m trying to find out from her how she thinks the law should be changed to support her/businesses perspective of the defined role these unpaid people would fill.

                1. Sarah

                  Again, in case anyone is confused by the title/article unpaid internships are legal. And no where in this article is it stated that the current law should be CHANGED to redefine the role of an intern. I hope that isn’t too personal for the author, but an argument against PAID JOBS in a very poor economy is offensive. This is a PERSONAL issue for anyone currently looking for PAID WORK so that they can put FOOD on the table. If you’re going to argue against the rights of the underprivileged, at least argue an articulate point.

                2. N

                  I didn’t completely agree with Alison’s argument in the article but Sarah, the ALL CAPS and repeated comments and “you should be ashamed of yourself” are all coming across as a little much, especially considering Alison’s comment below.

                3. Felicia

                  I’m in Canada so I’m a little confused on American law, but I’m under the impression that unpaid internships are illegal in for profits and in non profits they are legal? I know that here there are certain criteria that an internship must meet for it to be legally unpaid, and that many internships do not meet those criteria but that that law is very rarely enforced. For what I understood from the commenters there are similar criteria an unpaid internship must meet to be considering legal in the US, and from what I understand of those criteria, I don’t think they’re extensive enough to prevent rampant exploitation of the whole system.

  55. anon-2

    Now, what would REALLY happen ….

    If interns were unpaid — it WOULD eliminate paid jobs. Clerical jobs, admin positions, even the “go fers” would no longer be paid jobs, as companies would take advantage of this to churn their existing employees out and replace them with people they don’t have to pay.

    This proposal is comparable to what was cynically called “The McDonald’s Bill” in the Reagan era – which proposed paying unemployed people under 21 less than minimum wage.

    The “sales pitch” was that it would take unemployed youth off the street and create jobs. The reality is, every McDonald’s manager would start firing people and bringing in the lower-cost options.

    And isn’t that corporate America’s management teams’ top goal? To increase profits by eliminating jobs (or sending them to countries where “life is cheap”????)

    1. KellyK

      I think this is a valid concern. With the status quo, companies at least have to make a claim that the internship is an educational experience that benefits the student more than it benefits them. But if internships “for experience” are perfectly legal, it may become much more common to expect a year or two of unpaid experience before actually paying for work. (Particularly in the current economy where there are a lot more people looking than there are jobs to go around.)

      1. anon-2

        The problem is, if there were unpaid, full-time, long-term internships – and we all accepted them as de rigeur — they would replace paid jobs.

        The internships would actually have to be, as you said – “for experience”. If their purpose is to unfairly exploit those entering into them, then – yes, that’s where the labor laws kick in.

        I once worked in a place where someone was offered an internship – thinking it was going to help his career in professional computing – when in fact the student ended up running a decollating machine. His university advisors threatened to cut the company out of their internship/co-op program.

        In a past life (future from the above) I had co-op students working for me — but they did get paid, and my employer was happy to pay them for their work.

        I cannot understand the attitude “let’s see if we can get away with making ’em work for free.” But this is America in 2013. Those foul attitudes weren’t in place way back when.

  56. Ask a Manager Post author

    I want to thank everyone for the discussion here. You’ve given me a lot to think about on an issue where I thought my mind was pretty much made up.

    I know that some of the disagreement stems from fundamentally different premises about what the mission of our labor laws should be — for instance, I don’t think that it’s their mission to correct social inequalities, while some people here do. But there are other arguments being made here that I find pretty compelling, particularly the notion that if we’re going to make an exception to minimum wage laws, it needs to be for a compelling reason, and I’m not sure that the benefits of unpaid internships — particularly as they’re commonly structured today — do rise to that level. I’m giving it more thought.

    This has also made me more cognizant of how my views on unpaid internships have been influenced by working in nonprofits throughout my career, where the concept of volunteering is a normal one (but certainly shouldn’t be in for-profit businesses). Frankly, I’m not sure I’d realized how much that has colored my views on this issue, and it shouldn’t; they’re two different things.

    So I’m thinking, and I appreciate the debate here.

    1. Greg

      Who said anonymous commenters never changed anyone’s mind? Score one for the Internet! :-)

      Seriously, I do appreciate your open-mindedness on this issue, and although I disagreed with the original position you staked out, I never questioned your motivations for making it. I certainly think there is a legitimate case to be made for the value of unpaid internships, and I suspect even the most “anti” in this group recognizes that there may be cases where they can work as intended.

      I also wonder if some of the emotions your column stirred up has less to do with theoretical opposition to the concept, and more to do with how internship practices have evolved in recent years, especially since the Great Recession. The examples you frequently cited — part-time internships for college students — may be more justifiable, but there has been a pernicious trend in recent years toward using internships as a way to exploit recent grads and eliminate entry-level jobs. The 22-year-old who may have previously started at the bottom with a job that, while low-paying, still offered a steady paycheck and benefits now is forced to take a series of unpaid internships that require her to do the same type of scut work with no promise of full-time employment at the end. I don’t think you can realistically evaluate unpaid internships without taking that reality into account.

      1. Heather

        I was going to respond to you, but then Greg said the same thing much more articulately. So…what he said! :)

        1. Felicia

          Exactly what Greg said. I am for unpaid internships as you described them (part time, for college students) But internship practices have evolved in recent years to exploit the recent grad and have become what used to be an entry level job . I think taking that reality of what internship often are into account is important. They do often work, but they exploiting people far too often to let them continue as they are. If all unpaid internships really were part time and for college students, I would be totally for them.

  57. Anonymous

    I have two thoughts on this:

    1) Unpaid internships are incredibly unequal. Anecdotal evidence of an exceptional poor person who successfully juggles an unpaid internship, 3 part-time jobs, and school fails to stand up to the mountain of evidence demonstrating economic mobility in the US is incredibly low and that the majority of people who are born poor stay poor because the financial barriers to moving up the economic ladder are simply too high. A labor system where unpaid work is a requirement for entry to paid work is only one in a long line of obstacles.

    2) I understand that internships are an excellent means for untested college students to gain professional experience, but why must these internships be unpaid? In the traditional sense, an internship is merely supposed to be training. Training does not mean a person ends up doing vital and necessary work for the company’s success. If the work is necessary, though, to the products and services a company produces in order to turn a profit, then the worker should be entitled to part of the profit. You obviously wouldn’t pay an inexperienced person on the same level as an experienced person–just as you wouldn’t pay someone with 2-3 years of experience the same as you would someone with 20-30 years of experience–but they should still be paid. This is how a capitalist system works. People who labor are compensated for their labor from the profits resulting from their labor roughly proportional to their contribution.

    Many industries already have paid internships as a standard, and the system seems to work quite well. These internships similarly allow college students or others to gain practical experience and professional connections that enable them to enter their field after graduation as more qualified and experienced. Why shouldn’t all internships function in this way, other than “it’s always been that way” or that companies stand to benefit from an exploitative and abusive system where they profit from unpaid labor?

  58. Anonymous

    As a recent graduate, I have to dispute the idea that an unpaid, part-time internship is a feasible solution for poorer students. It is nearly impossible to juggle a full load of courses (4 classes per semester to graduate on time), a full-time job, and a part-time internship — while also studying for classes, attending office hours, preparing for standardized tests, and applying for next semester’s internship, a post-graduation job, and/or graduate school.

    Of course, students can complete their part-time internships over the summer, but organizations tend to assume that students are free over the summer and most summer internships are full-time. Additionally, while these part-time summer internships do exist, they are often less rigorous than full-time internships and provide fewer opportunities for true work experience. Especially in the scientific fields, 20 hours per week for 12 weeks is barely enough time to devise a small project, let alone see it to fruition.

    Thus, in a world of unpaid internships, poorer students are inevitably disadvantaged when they enter the work force — both in terms of their financial status as debtors and their qualifications for employment (which then further inhibits their ability to pay off those debts).

  59. Confused

    I was debating commenting or not, especially since it’s long…but I’m glad you (Alison) see that your view is based on your work in nonprofits. But most business are not nonprfits.
    Preface: I was required to intern to graduate from college (side note: my college REQUIRED the internship be UNPAID, otherwise you would not get credit). I actually loved my internship. Years later, I still keep in touch with many of the people I met. Nonetheless….I really disagree with you on this one, Alison.

    Breaking it down:
    You are citing the Fox/Black Swan case and the current state of “internships” in the entertainment industry is out of control. It’s not that internships should not exist, but in the Fox case it seems these interns were being asked to do tasks that should have been done by an entry level worker (accounting clerk). That’s what they claim.

    ~”In many industries these internships are a normal part of gaining experience that prepares candidates for paying work in the field.”
    It’s fine to do 1 or 2 during school. But GRADS with degrees and student loan debt are going from one unpaid internship to another and it’s not leading to jobs. Other people can’t afford to intern at all. It doesn’t mean they should be eliminated, it means internships have become the go to loophole for those seeking free labor. Go on the entertainment section of various job sites and you can find countless internship opportunities which are blatant attempts at free labor (not all, but too many). They are not supervised. They are exploitative.
    Example: “Executive assistant/receptionist interns” who have to work 40 hour weeks, manage busy schedules, roll calls. That is a real job you should be paid for.

    ~”hire someone who already knows what they’re doing”
    Every entry level job doesn’t require a lot of experience. That’s why they are called “entry” level.
    “Production assistant interns” You are given a task. You do the task. You don’t need training. That is an entry level position. You don’t even really need a high school diploma. The number of PA jobs that are now filled by unpaid interns…you have no idea!

    ~”Opponents of unpaid internships like to argue that those interns are doing work that should be paid, and that they’re displacing paying jobs.”
    Calling these entry level positions “internships” IS reducing the number of entry level positions. Let’s say you did your internships during college, have experience, and are now looking for an entry level job…. but you cannot find one because so many are filled by unpaid interns. Why pay $12/hr for an assistant when you can have one for free? Sure, it might take a few days train them, but then you have a free assistant for several months! It’s not that difficult a job to figure out, and if the person isn’t great he/she will be replaced by another unpaid intern soon enough. I know places that have drastically reduced the number of entry level positions and are now hiring more and more interns to fill what should be, and have previously been, paid jobs. I will never forget an an early episode of Rachel Zoe Project where she was comforting an overwhelmed assistant with, “Do you need more help? I can hire more interns!” Hey Rachael, how about hiring more paid assistants? (Please excuse that I, at one point, watched RZP)

    ~”After all, if you’re a business owner choosing between someone with no work experience and someone with three years of experience, you’re going to hire the more experienced candidate”
    There are very few paid internships, very few part time internships, and fewer lead to a job. How many “20 hours per week for a few months” should you have to do to gain those 3 years of experience? Are you really suggesting working for free for 3 years in order to get an entry level job?

    ~”…unpaid internships – even the ones that consist mainly of grunt work – are the difference between having a résumé with some experience on it or having an empty résumé…”
    You could argue that child labor should be allowed because by the time you are 16 or 18 you will have a resume full of experience.

    *Bottom line: a business is going to do whatever it can to cut costs. If it means calling you an independent contractor when you’re not, hiring temp after temp, hiring 2 part-timers to avoid benefits, paying below min wage/under the table, or calling everything an “internships” and not paying at all.*

    ~”…job experience and references who will vouch for their work habits”
    The judge actually directly addressed this saying, “The benefits they may have received — such as knowledge of how a production or accounting office functions or references for future jobs — are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works…”

    Finally, I know a lot of people say, “you have to pay your dues” or “those Fox interns could have left” but I don’t think it’s really about those interns. If it hadn’t been those guys, it would have been 2 other people. You can pay dues with paid entry level work. I don’t know which way the Fox case is going to go. But in general terms, many (certainly not all) unpaid internships are simply an abuse of the system.

    I’ll now go back to keeping it short and sweet.

  60. Anonymous in the Legal Industry

    I’m in the legal industry, where, due to the glut of law school graduates, unpaid internships have gone from the unheard-of to being the norm now.

    I’ve worked 4 unpaid internships throughout college and law school, in both non-profit and for-profit places. These internships definitely had people doing what a paralegal, an entry-level office assistant, or a “go-fer” would have done. That being said, I’m definitely among those for whom the unpaid internships DID work out, because:

    1) I had family/significant other support throughout,
    2) My unpaid internships were strictly part-time. None were more than 20 hours a week, and all were quite accommodating of my class and major holidays schedule.
    3) Both of my unpaid internships in for-profit firms later turned into hourly paid positions. No benefits, but it made the unpaid period of the internship feel like a probation period rather than a period of exploitation, and I appreciated the move from unpaid to hourly wage as a recognition that my work WAS worth something to them.
    4) At least indirectly launched my career: I proved myself to one of the attorneys I worked for at my last unpaid internship and he put out a word for me to other attorneys he knew and got me the interview that led to my first career-level job.

    My unpaid internships in the non-profit sector were much less worthwhile. In one, I not only had to work for free, pay for the internship course credits, but also had to pay for downtown parking every day I worked that internship! The courthouse couldn’t swing parking validation for the garage attached to the courthouse…Really?!

    Therefore, just because my own experience with unpaid internships in the for-profit sector was positive overall, doesn’t mean that I can’t see how it’s so so easy for these unpaid internships to turn exploitative. And it really isn’t that much of a hardship to businesses to pay their interns at least a minimum wage–when mine started paying me , one small fender-bender personal-injury case settlement would have paid my wages for a month. Of course there were zero benefits.

    Ironically enough, one of these unpaid internships was at a firm that did a lot of plaintiff-side FLSA wage violation cases. I chuckled at the irony quite a few times as I was putting together damage models that estimated how much the defendant-companies owed the firm’s clients for minimum and overtime wage violations–for free. Oh and I have to keep track of my billable hours worked on each case, and according to the tracking software, my and the other interns’ time was billed to the clients at $75 per hour. So the argument that companies would not have hired anybody if they could not have used unpaid interns is untenable: THE CLIENTS WERE BILLED–AKA PAYING FOR–THE INTERNS’ TIME! The company pocketed all that money. Even when I started being paid an hourly wage, I certainly wasn’t paid $75 an hour.

    Like I said, that particular internship actually worked out for me in the end. But just because I was lucky, doesn’t mean that these things are OK.

  61. Lesley

    Considering most internships I’ve had (two of which were unpaid) have done approximately nothing to help me get a job, I’m not especially sympathetic to this argument.

    Most job listings I’ve read have expressly disqualified my internships from relevant consideration anyway. “Must have 1-2 years of full time professional experience.” I see this over and over and over again for supposedly “entry level” professional postings in my field.

    The issue isn’t whether internships pay or not. The issue is whether internships teach you skills that help you get a job or not and my experience is that they do not because most employers don’t consider internships “real” work. Effective training needs to be available somewhere. Universities no longer provide it, employers don’t want to shoulder the cost of it, and internships are increasingly irrelevant as well because everybody has now completed 3 or 4 of them and most are just seen as gopher work at best. If what I am being “taught” at internships doesn’t actually do much to help me get a job, the least they can do is pay me for the work I did.

  62. Beth

    I have managed numerous interns (all unpaid) and for the most part given their lack of experience, they have been more work for me than if they weren’t there as I have to train them and hand hold on everything. By the time they get the hang of things, they leave. I would never hire them if I had to pay them, so I think the benefit is definitely to them at least in my industry.

  63. Miguel

    Unpaid internship helped me a lot in developing skills while I was studying for my undergrad. If it is true you acquire a lot of knowledge with the classes, real-life work experience is a huge complement to all the theory on class. I just wish people can see that. At the end, whatever everybody says, unpaid internship is for the benefit of the students, even though it just happen that student is helping the business.

  64. MK

    I would absolutely take an unpaid internship if I could. Thing is, I have expenses of everyday life to consider, as well as the added expense of transporting myself to said internship. Having been strung along by an unpaid internship in the past that was supposed to help me build skills, I will no longer work for free. That particular experience instead left me travelling 50 miles round trip 4 times a week to wait at a desk for a meeting that would often never take place (although scheduled in advance and requested by the physician overseeing me), and searching online for the materials for projects I was collaborating on without guidance despite asking for help. Ultimately I took nothing from this experience except to get my expectations of future agreements in writing in advance of starting rather than vague “wait and see” type statements, and to also get in writing what was expected of me for my time with the organization.

    I completely agree with the comments below me that exclusively offering unpaid internships will lead to an increase in interns whose lives are paid for by an outside party. Depending on the worker(s) that apply for these roles, that may leave you with at least one useless employee with no work ethic or some other essential trait lacking. Often enough now I see job postings for internships that are at least roughly equivalent to other paid opportunities with respect to duties and expectations, and full-time hours, which leads me to believe that companies are looking for cheap labor as opposed to someone who is meant to learn the ropes. Such positions would be much more worth it if they even covered travel expenses and were part-time.

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