The Ugly Truth About Unpaid Internships

The Ugly Truth About Unpaid Internships

Internships: a time-honored tradition in which young professionals gain valuable career experience and skills they can’t learn in the classroom. Internships are widely recognized as a great way to boost your resume and get a leg up over your peers in the job market. For many industries, they’re a rite of passage and an invaluable part of the workforce.

Yet there’s something horribly wrong with most internships as we operate them here in the bestest country on Earth.

Trigger warning: today’s lesson includes mentions of privilege and unfavorable descriptions of capitalism. Also law-breaking. Clutch your pearls and avert your eyes.

The Catch-22 of industry experience

More and more employers are requiring entry level employees to have industry experience in order to get hired. Get that? You have to have a job to get a job, a requirement that necessitates ripping the fabric of the space time continuum in order to get hired.

That or getting an internship. Young people are basically forced to take on internships as a necessary step toward getting a job. And companies therefore understand they can rely on young professionals to work for experience rather than more tangible compensation (read: COLD HARD CASH, YO).

And we all know what we Bitches think of working for free:

Employers are thinking of their bottom lines. Free labor saves companies a lot of money. And while they’re frugally using this free labor, they imagine themselves to be benevolently providing young people with valuable experience that they can then use to get a good job in the industry because they require that said young’uns have said experience in order to get a job in the industry!

In effect, it’s treating “experience” as being as good as actual money.

… and interns as good as indentured servants.

The privilege of working for free

Experience does not pay the bills. Free snacks and other workplace perks are nice, but again: not legal tender. So compensating internships with anything but coin of the realm is rather exclusionary.

Of course, this puts people from low income families at a significant disadvantage in the job market. One can only work for free if one has a significant financial safety net to fall back on.

For kids from wealthy families, that’s easy! Lots of people from privileged financial backgrounds rely on their parents to keep them fed, housed, and transported while they intern for free. But what is a kid from a low-income family supposed to do? They literally can’t afford to spend the work day interning for no pay. They need to spend that time making money to support themselves, because nobody else is going to do it for them.

A company offering unpaid internships might as well include “three months of living expenses saved up” or “rich family” under their list of job qualifications.

And while someone without a cushy financial safety net can still work a part time job on the side while interning, it can be hard to find a job with a schedule flexible enough to work around an internship. Plus there’s the whole killing-yourself-working-long-hours-at-multiple-jobs-every-day-without-taking-a-break thing.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Some states have tried to combat this disparity by making it illegal to hire interns without offering them some kind of compensation. But naturally, there are all kinds of ways to get around such a rule.

As they say, “The road to Hell is paved with well-intended but poorly-conceived legislative solutions that make the problem worse.”

In Massachusetts, for example, most internships either pay minimum wage or sign off on the intern receiving college credit in exchange for their work, essentially treating the internship as just another college class. As we’ve discussed before, minimum wage ain’t shit. And “college credit”? Fool, students need to pay their schools for college credit!

In this arrangement, the student still has to pay their school for the credits they earned by “going to class” at their internship. So not only are they working for free… they’re paying to work.

As if this wasn’t vomit-inducing enough for you, this system also specifically closes internships to those who aren’t college students. Which is another great way to shit on the poor who can’t afford a college education.

Both sides now

I’ve had three internships in my lifetime.

During my first summer internship, I worked part time at a factory (a book bindery, actually, so it totally counted as “””publishing industry experience”””) making minimum wage while I lived at my parents’ house. I rode the bus and subway for an hour and a half three mornings a week in order to get to my internship in the city.

This was in a state that required interns be compensated with college credit. So I forged the paperwork to make it look like I was getting college credit for my internship experience. My supervisor didn’t know the difference, and my school didn’t know I was even doing an internship that summer.

Now, this is absolutely wrong and illegal. But honestly? I have no ethical qualms about it.

I needed that damn internship to get work experience in the publishing industry. And I didn’t have a single day off all summer long: I was either interning for free, or working my paid job. I couldn’t afford to pay for those credits, and I couldn’t afford to graduate and enter the job market without an internship. So I got the resume booster I needed to get ahead in my industry, and the company got the free labor it so desperately wanted.

But when, seven years later, I became the internship coordinator for my company, I found myself in a position to make change. At last, I could put action to my convictions and make sure interns were paid fairly for their labor!

Except it wasn’t that easy. I was caught between a rock and the immovable inertial force of socioeconomic norms. Staff members desperately needed part-time help, but the company couldn’t afford to pay a part-time worker. Meanwhile, we had college students and recent graduates basically beating down our doors, begging for that sweet, sweet internship experience.

I asked for compensation for my interns every goddamn semester and it was never approved. “It’s just not in the budget. But marketing could really use an extra pair of hands this fall!” Short of marketing… growing extra hands… we needed interns.

So I hired unpaid interns… and gave them each a $100 gift card at the end of each semester. $100 for three months of part-time work. It was the best I could do and I’m still angry with myself for not being able to do better.

So there you have it. Once again capitalism rears its ugly head and the most vulnerable are the ones to pay the price. For now, we all just consider unpaid internships a necessary evil. But I don’t think it’s right, and I think we need to find a better solution for change.

Got an internship story? Share with the whole class in the comment below! Those who supervise interns will receive partial credit for their work.

27 thoughts to “The Ugly Truth About Unpaid Internships”

  1. I never had an internship, couldn’t afford the unpaid work since I needed to pay for college. I didn’t pay much attention to it, until I entered the work force and noticed that some of my peers were getting interviews and their foot in their door through internship experience and networks.

    The Ford Foundation’s President had a great blog post about this and how they were changing their internship program to help bridge the gap between kids who were more financially stable and kids from lower income households.

  2. I feel as if interns are misused sometimes as well and don’t end up getting the experience they need. I know I was. I was a criminology major and interned at a city attorney’s office. Most of the time they sent me over to human resources to reorganize the files that she had let gone to complete hell. I was not pleased. But what could I do? I needed the experience, even if it was only on paper and not actual experience.

  3. As a deaf person who happens to have a rare syndrome that affects my appearance, it’s more challenging to find an internship, even with help from your school career counselor who loved to say here’s a deaf girl in need of an internship in order to graduate. Except mentioning that is a big no no because nobody will take a chance on a deaf person unless desperate or forced to. It doesn’t matter that there’s laws protecting us from discrimination because it doesn’t work at all. I only got one interview for an internship and it was at the Whitney Museum of American Art (my previous dream museum to work at) but they chose a normal hearing person for the internship that required fluency in ASL and experience working with disabled visitors (which I have due to a previous job at an agency that services people with disabilities) and they gave me a volunteer opportunity to help with the events dealing with deaf visitors at the museum, which I took because I thought it would boost my ‘kinda lack of experiences’ resume. Unfortunately, with the two years of living in NYC for school and applying for jobs and internships all the time, nobody wanted to take a chance on me and I was forced to leave NYC when I graduated because I couldn’t afford to live there and had no job and I became pretty bitter and hated NYC for a while due to lack of opportunities even though I networked and did everything right. Many places say that they need someone fluent in ASL, but they tend to choose a normal hearing candidate with no clue how the deaf world operates and no idea what ASL is and it’s infuriating because many qualified deaf people are automatically shut out. My resume itself, I take great pains to hide the fact I’m deaf and only say that I’m fluent in ASL under languages. Still struggling to find a job, and even in this rural backwards town in upstate NY, nobody will take a chance on me, even when they know that I have been looking for a job, even if they’re mom’s clients. I had work experiences which is through an agency but it’s all temporary and minimum wage and nobody will hire me, even if my work are way above the quality of others and that I work 1000x time harder than others. I’m 29 and I feel as I’m far behind others in terms of jobs and probably will never get to be able to work and live outside the USA and be secure in terms of finances due to the fact I struggle with finding a job. I know some other deaf people who are also struggling and there are others who are lucky and able to find really amazing jobs or found a business that is successful. Running a business is not for me because mom have one and she works 24/7 with no breaks and I hate that type of lifestyle and I’m horrible at being a hustler.

    Sorry that it became into a lengthy rant. Unpaid internships should not be a thing.

  4. Thank God I was able to not only get a paid internship, but one that paid well WITH benefits (including reimbursing my tuition costs for the internship class). That summer internship put me miles ahead of my classmate who “only” had a campus job. I had the luxury of being in a field that pays well so unpaid internships aren’t really a thing.

  5. I’m so glad I’m old and internships were not a thing when I was younger, as I wouldn’t have had the money to work for free.

    Unpaid internships are just for the rich and well connected – and are such a bad idea on so many levels.

    Hopefully we’ll ban them soon.

  6. I swear we must be spirit animals or something because this came just at the right time! So, guess who’s in the middle of chasing that summer internship right now (me muahaha). Boy, have I come across some skcetchy places. I totally get what you mean about the “taking advantage” and “paying to work” BS just to get work experience. Horrific.
    Like I said, I am in the middle of trading my firstborn to get an internship as well. Anyway, a few weeks ago, while I busy applying for EVERY company I could find, I can across a couple of very sketchy ads whereby you had to pay a fee anywhere from “$1,500-$4000” just to apply for an unpaid internship. Just to apply? What kind of pyramid scheme is this? The worst part is that they specifically targeted international students, which have little to no protecteion by the law here in Australia and are know to be “easily exploitable”. :/

  7. I’ve been on both sides of the equation, as well. In college, I did unpaid internship while in school, but I also had part-time jobs. There was no way I would be able to not work. I don’t recall multiple jobs being a huuuuge burden, but I also had a lighter course load than, say, someone on the sciences with lab classes and things. But I would not have been able to take on a full-time summer internship, for example. I do feel in some industries that unpaid internships are unavoidable. Especially in creative industries. It’s rare to see someone working in low-paid creative industries that doesn’t have some sort of help.

    I also created an internship program at my job. I realized we needed help, and there was no money. I tried really hard to give kids real experience that they were proud of, and tailored projects based on their interests and abilities, gave them one-on-one meetings, etc. One of the interns we were able to pay, and I remember arguing with my boss about giving her a dollar raise. My boss didn’t understand why I cared so much. Anyway, we ended up hiring her after school, because she was so good. I always felt a sense of pride that I found her!

  8. Rewind about a decade and a half and companies were on campus trying to get a people to sign up for internships. I remember one of those visits clearer then the others. ESPN was onsite asking for interviews. They weren’t paying.

    About thirty seconds after they said that three quarters of the room got up and left. You see in engineering school the internships almost always pay, and well. Then again the stereo type is an intern does things like fetch coffee. I distinctly remember writing code and running test scripts on a mainframe.

    On one hand it’s hard for me to relate to unpaid internship concerns. On the other you run into these issues when your in a major with more applicants then jobs. Might be a sign to switch majors.

  9. I had to do my first internship for free because as an international student, I’m only allowed to do 1 payed internship (Ok. I can do more than one but it gets significantly more legally complicated). The employer offered to pay me but I had to decline because I wanted to “save” it for the junior year internship. I’m happy with my decision because that one pays significantly better.

  10. My daughter had five (!!!) unpaid internships ( two in high school and three in college) before landing a paid one the summer after her second year in college. She won a scholarship to a private university, and this was expected in her major. I did not have a large income at all, and was not able to help her much. My second daughter is still in college and needs one internship ( likely unpaid) before graduation. You are absolutely right; it is extremely difficult for students who come from lower income families.

  11. My college has a program where you get $3000 to fund working at an internship the summer between your junior and senior years if you attend a few “how to make a resume”-like 2 hour classes. That was the only year that I got an internship because that was the only year that I could afford not to work all summer (still worked some, but not full-time). It’s beyond ridiculous that that was considered a solution, but it did allow students who weren’t able to afford to take unpaid internships the opportunity.

    1. Yes, my university had and still has similar options. You can apply for funding through either the university itself or through specialized grants offered by outside organization through the program (depending on your field). However, this process often did NOT take financial situations into account- you were judged on the strength of your application, references, and the internship itself, not your need. Only a few grants were offered first to students with a financial need. The general funding was also very unevenly distributed according to your field (very little for arts/humanities). Although it’s not a perfect solution, universities (particularly ones with large endowments and a higher proportion of wealthier students) should be helping students bridge this gap in an unfair system. Although I do not supervise interns, I do supervise undergrads, many of whom are on financial aid. I frequently direct them to these internship grants/funding (because the university doesn’t advertise them AT ALL) and often try to write the best letter of recommendations possible to ensure they get some assistance.

      Not to mention, in order receive the money, you essentially had to fill out a timesheet every week, your intern supervisor had to sign off on it, and submit it to your university every week. It was a lot of extra work for your supervisor and you had to hope they were willing to put in the effort for you.

  12. When I started graduate school in the fall, my advisor told me that most internships in the field were unpaid (my degree is in child psychology) but to think of it as a “learning experience”. Well, learning experiences don’t pay the bill! This is unfortunately the case in a lot of child-related careers, and while I lucked out and found a good summer research jobs, most of the internships in my area were closed off to me because they were 40 hours a week unpaid.

  13. Way back in the year 2000, when I was a junior in college, I went to a career fair in New York City for the publishing industry. All the big publishers were eager to tell us about the unpaid summer internships we could take–in New York City. Which made it clear to me that only super rich kids or those who already lived in New York were ever going to get into big publishing.

    I’m not still bitter about it 18 years later. Not at all.

  14. I did five unpaid internships while in college and it was so hard managing a full class load, the internship, and a part-time job. During my second year, I chose to focus mainly on my classes and part-time job since doing all three was running me into the ground.

    My industry is digital marketing and public relations and I never understood why unpaid internships were so prevalent. The jobs were creative in a sense but also analytical. The companies were established and generated good revenue. I didn’t understand why so many places didn’t want to pay their interns.

    There was a point in my senior year where one of the head professors was asking why more people weren’t doing internships and a bunch of us blurted out that we couldn’t afford it since the majority of the internships were unpaid.

  15. Ouch, that sucks. I also did a “school credit” internship for a semester my senior year of college. It actually did come in handy, but it’s still stupid the way we do internships.

    If you need help, you need to pay for help. End of story. Internships are really mucking up entry-level jobs for people.

  16. People should not have to work for free to get necessary experience. Period.

    That being said, in my line of work (lawyering) you need to work for a year, supervised by a practicing lawyer, before you will become a full fledged baby lawyer. The pickings for these positions (most of which are low paying to begin with) were so slim in recent years that young law grads were cold calling offices and offering to work for free. Because they needed the experience. It was gross.

  17. Similar to Gwen and FullTimeFinance, I had a college summer internship but it was a pretty sweet gig. My degree is in engineering and I went to a tech school; I don’t think I knew anyone with an unpaid internship. I interned in the summer of 2007, and earned something like $17/hr, plus the same benefits as normal salaried employees (accrued vacation and sick time, 401k match, etc.). Internships were pretty much a way to lure young talent to the company – something like 70% of interns received job offers at the end of each summer typically. Not sure what those numbers are like now, post-recession.

  18. I was lucky enough to have all five of my internships I completed be paid. Keep in mind though, that they paid a “stipend” which meant I was paid as an independent contractor and I was paid under minimum wage but I was still expected to work thirty to fifty hours weeks with a full-time class schedule. It was insane. I was lucky enough to come from a rich family, so I was able to save about $200-$400 from each of them (keep in mind the highest paying one was $3,000). I was living at home during this time or on campus with my nice scholarship money covering housing and food. But it’s still insane how much work I did while my employers at the time patted themselves on the back for at least paying me. But when I did the math of the best paid per hour worked ended up being $4.03 per hour. It was crazy and that’s before the tax man came to collect on my independent contractor bills.

    When I graduated, I would get call backs who would ask about how I had 6 years experience when I was just graduating. I stated I did four years of internships and 2 years of part-time jobs. So every single one would then change their friendly tone to a “are you even kidding me?” tone and would say “so you really only have two years of part-time experience?” So all my hours at internships literally did nothing for me. I am still pissed a year later.

  19. I understand the problem, but what is really the solution?

    What are interns worth? This is actually an interesting question with regard to apprentices. Usually when you hire someone who is ignorant their value is low, and often negative if you have to slow down your own work to train them. So apprenticeships are often a longer commitment so you might slow me down now, but you’ll add to my bottom line in the end.

    There is also a supply and demand issue (which is addressed by capitalism but not caused by it). As you pointed out, when there are people willing to work for free why SHOULD an employer pay? Yes, this system means that poorer students get squeezed out of the system, but then maybe they should be coached to pick majors that aren’t so competitive that YOU NEED TO WORK FOR FREE FOR THE FIRST YEAR. There are plenty of careers that DON’T have unpaid internships.

    It feels like life should be as easy and have as many open choices for everyone as for rich and powerful people. But that isn’t and has never been reality.

  20. Oh yeah, I did the “take an internship for college credit” thing my senior year so paid for the privilege of working *eye roll*. Thank goodness I also had a work-study job so I could afford to pay for my transportation back and forth. That internship did actually hire me the summer after and paid me $20/hour (no benefits and they didn’t take my taxes out of my paycheck but hey, I was getting paid what felt like a tooooonnnnnn!), which I’m really thankful for because that beefed up the savings I had to spend down in order to support myself for the two months of unemployment between that summer job and my first big girl job.

  21. I’m late to this party, but had to comment since this is a topic I feel pretty strongly about.

    I recently had to take an unpaid internship as a requirement to complete my degree program. Not only was it required, but students had to find internships with no assistance from my school’s department. There was a book of available internships in the department office, but it’s super outdated.

    Luckily my tuition, and therefore, my internship, was paid for by Uncle Sam so I didn’t feel the burn of paying out of pocket for “experience.” Still, like others mentioned, I left my internship feeling like it was more of an item to knock off the checklist than something valuable I can use for my career.

    I’m almost a month post-graduation and haven’t yet secured a job, and still waiting to see if the internship experience will make a difference.

  22. My daughters will get my standard spiel about internships: “Do what you want. Be aware, though, if an internship is unpaid, by definition the offering organization thinks it of no real value. If it were valuable to them, it’d be paid. Better to do a project of your own relevant to your prospective profession, and work something out-of-industry to support yourself, than to pay to have a ‘toy job’ on the resume, in my opinion.”

  23. I actually never did an internship because when I heard the word “free” I was like no way. It wasn’t that it was all about the money, but it was also the principle of the thing.

    Come on. It’s like Beyonce says, “you got to pay me.” I’m not working for free because I know I would be unhappy and bitter being a free-wage slave.

    Trying to take advantage of me while I’m young and loose like a mongoose because I have no mortgage or kids is utterly disturbing t me.

    I would probably have better luck finding out who one of their vendors are and then applying for a job with them. That way I am being paid by the company indirectly by being paid from their vendor who is paid by them. That is the only real trickle-down economics there is!!!

    Love this post btw.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *