In Praise of Unpaid Internships

First of all, if you want an intern, I strongly suggest paying for one. The laws are pretty strict in requiring pay for interns at for-profit companies. You can legally do it, but it will be easier and better for all concerned if you do pay–at least minimum wage.

But, that said, I wish the Department of Labor would loosen their rules to allow for more unpaid internships. And it’s not just that I want young people to suffer the way we suffered back in my day. (I did an internship for a state legislature and received a $300 stipend for the 45-day session, but the senator I worked for gave me a $100 bonus out of his own pocket.)

No, I’m no fan of suffering for suffering sake, but I am a fan of learning. This is why I like unpaid internships.

More available internships mean more possibilities

Yes, the best students will likely get the paid internships, but even mediocre students will benefit from any sort of internship.

To keep reading, click here: In Praise of Unpaid Internships

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16 thoughts on “In Praise of Unpaid Internships

  1. The trouble with allowing more unpaid internships is that it disproportionately punishes low and moderate income students. I worked my way all through college and couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship, even though I was offered a couple amazing opportunities, because it would have literally meant not eating or being able to put gas in the car to GET to said internship. More opportunities that are only accessible to the upper income/wealthy students (1) don’t help the students who need it most, (2) encourage the perpetuation of the wealth gap, and (3) disproportionately target minorities and low income folks for exclusion.

    I get the point you’re trying to make, but there’s a reason these rules were enacted – to try (however imperfectly) to level the playing field for what opportunities remain.

    1. Absolutely; ‘unpaid’ implies to me exploitation and undervaluation. One of my criteria for selecting a college and major was the availability of compensated cooperative-education opportunities. “Co-op” rules!

  2. If an intern is not worth even the minimum wage to a company, that company has no intention of providing that intern with anything of value. An internship that consists mainly of entry-level clerical tasks like scanning, copying, filing, etc., is a waste of the intern’s time.

  3. “Why is it okay to take out $100k in loans for a degree and not to take one semester to do an unpaid internship?”

    First, “possible” is not the same as “ok” – but second I don’t think students CAN get loans to cover unpaid work (please someone correct me if I’m wrong).

    I say this as someone who used to work at a nonprofit that did use a LOT of unpaid interns – it absolutely impacted who could and could not intern for us, which then impacted who got experience working in the sector, and who got to build not just a resume but a network, and thus who got jobs in the industry, and thus….how white and privileged our workforce continues to be. Ethically, it’s something I really struggled with.

    (Tabling the discussion about the utterly insane levels of debt students can get themselves into, and how almost-limitless amount students are allowed to borrow to pay for college has allowed those institutions to increase their budgets and thus tuition to equally insane levels for another day)

  4. Lots of students already do unpaid internships. I’m looking at you nursing and teacher education programs. Both my undergrad (510 hours) and graduate (so so many hours) internships, were required to graduate and unpaid. That’s fairly normal in the counseling/human services field.

    I agree that an unpain internship sucks but there lots of good reasons why an internship might be unpaid. I think better regulations around what the internship consists of, to hold employer responsible for a learning experience would help a ton.

  5. I disagree with another commenter . Unpaid internships do not “target” minority or low income people. They are open to everyone. Do you want people to have opportunity to get a foot in the door ? Or is it more important that people make 8 to $10 an hour? If money is more important, work construction or fast food. It’s a choice thing, just as we still see people getting degrees in fields that don’t translate to jobs. Your choice!
    Internships are tremendously important for gaining any relevant experience. As a recruiter, if someone has any experience, that is significantly better than someone who has worked at a McDonald’s. I get that people have to work. My own firm now has well-paying internships; if we want to hire people with internships, we need to hire interns, too. For us it’s not a matter of paying; having interns is also work for the firm.

    1. They don’t TARGET them, but they do disproportionately impact them. If you cannot afford to work for free (or next to nothing) you are being excluded from a major career-building opportunity, as you yourself pointed out.

    2. As a recruiter, if someone has any experience, that is significantly better than someone who has worked at a McDonald’s.

      1. Thus perpetuating the problem
      2. I would rather have someone who had worked at McDonald’s, where there is no favoritism and you have to show up on time, every shift, and deal with crummy work conditions, than someone who got an internship through her parents’ connections.


      Someone who had to – HAD TO – work for money in high school and college

    3. I’m surprised by your views given that you say you’re a recruiter.

      • You might want to look into McDonald’s employment requirements. You might be pleasantly surprised at what avMcDonald’s job teaches a first-time worker.

      • If an internship is unpaid, only a student wealthy enough to forego pay can afford to take that internship.

  6. I believe the internship program referred to in the article doesn’t follow/fall anywhere in a school connected program. The ones referred to by article expect their interns to put in a minimum of 50 hours weekly. I am not sure if there’s any college credit given at all, unlike the school based internships. These are set up to give the individual, exposure and experience, in fields like high finance or fashion or law offices, where there’s no training,you are expected to know when hired. These are the internships where we have heard complaints about being expected to learn while being the gofer person.
    Unless there’s a school credit attached, all internships should be a paid position (in a lower bracket than an experienced employee). How else is the person supposed to support themselves while doing an internship? And like the article states, there should be a clear definition of what will be accomplished during the time period of the internship. Even tech startups fail in this by taking advantage of the “free” labor. I would hope that the employer/employee relationships have gone past this point.

  7. I’m against unpaid internships unless academic credit is being earned as part of the internship. Otherwise, it should be like any other employment and paid at least minimum wage.

  8. I got an unpaid internship but it came with free student lodging, a free bus pass and free access to sport facilities. That was a good compromise and I was able to live on my own money from previous part-time jobs and not be a burden on my parents.

    I feel that completely unpaid internships with nothing else given are really unfair and create too much hardship for students and their families.

  9. I’m a college professor and spent nine years as a department chair where I had to approve all internships. My original opinion was that an internship should either be paid or the student should receive academic credit but not both. Over the years, after seeing a bunch of students take internships, I have changed my opinion completely. Now, I strongly believe that all internships should be paid. Period.

    First, many companies seem to feel like academic credit is pay enough. However, what they do not realize is that for a student to receive academic credit for an internship, the student must PAY to register for the course for which they will receive credit. If it’s a three hour course (typical) then they must pay for a three hour course. In other words, they must pay for the privilege of working for the company.

    (The college must pay a professor to evaluate the company and the work performed to make sure it was worth academic credit so this is not the college gouging the student.)

    Not only must the student pay for the academic credit and work for free, they must forgo the opportunity of working for pay somewhere else and if the internship is not local, they must pay to live in the new location. That is just too much to expect for “experience” unless they are receiving exceptional experience and most interns do not.

    >>Regardless of what your professors say, you’re at
    >>school to get a job.

    I have to disagree with this as well. If the ONLY purpose of going to college is to get a job, then you are going to a votechnical school and not a college. Also, colleges would not offer degrees like philosophy or history that rarely or never lead to a job. My undergraduate was mathematics and it never once helped me get a job.

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