top of page

Unpaid Internships

September 11, 2012

Will Work For Skills

Zachary Alexander

Internship positions — whether paid or not — are an important component of a developmental process that, for many students, is an essential step on the path to a prosperous, fulfilling career. Networking, job experience, character building and the eventual job opportunity are all direct benefits of internships. Any single one of these factors would make internships worth an individual’s time, but more often than not an internship will provide all of these factors in addition to being contained within a profession a student has already deemed interesting and relevant to their coursework.


Not all students who attend a major university automatically know someone in a particular field who will help them further their careers. For example, a Wolverine from a working class background interested in law is unlikely to have access, through parents or friends, to a law firm, whereas it is more feasible for someone from an upper class background to have connections in such an area. Internships can actually function as an equalizer between these two classmates. They can allow a student from any class background to gain access to people their regular life


may not bring them in touch with, in a field of work they may not be personally connected to as a result of financial means, friendships, or location. Beyond that, internships also surround interns with those who share their values and passions, allowing their interest and knowledge to grow. Without an internship, someone from a small town may never have the chance outside of the classroom to discuss a love of nuclear energy policy, yet the Nuclear Energy Institute offers a plethora of internships which enable that person’s particular interest to flourish.


More importantly, internships build job experiences in professional settings which are more likely to build careers than a typical summer job working at a fast food restaurant or an amusement park. For instance, Glassdoor, a website used to demonstrate salaries and wages of employers, lists Mcdonald’s average cashier salary to be 7.63 an hour, a little over $16,000 a year, and their store manager position at $38,000 a year. By comparison, a company such as Google or Microsoft that offers internships, though they may be unpaid, has a much wider range of salaries in particular specializations, and allows for advancement, even if it means biting the bullet and working for nothing for a few months. Interns learn specializations in a field they’re interested in, as opposed to a more general low-wage job. Essentially, the unpaid internship should be thought of as job training.


Of course a position at McDonald’s is much easer to attain than an internship at a Fortune 500 company. While this is true, the rarity of the latter is actually a strength. If most can gain employment from McDonald’s, then the ones who choose a different path will set their résumé apart from others. Additionally, those with intern experience will have gained specialized skills that could better qualify them to continue a career in a field they enjoy.


But internships also provide something that cannot easily be measured and is just as important to any young person as résumé building—character building. The Millennial generation is perceived to be lazy and unwilling to sacrifice. This is simply untrue. Internships are one way to prove that Millennials possess a diligent work ethic. This is especially true of unpaid internships. Unpaid interns demonstrate loyalty and sacrifice to a particular company with no guarantee of a reward. Internships also build character by teaching young Americans the value of working their way up from the bottom to the top, as opposed to the notion that they might “deserve” a particular position. Lawyers may argue in front of judges, but without interns to run the papers between the offices, nothing moves forward.


Finally, internships lead to job opportunities either within the company or the industry that the intern desires. According to Forbes, 60 percent of paid internships and 37 percent of unpaid internships lead to job opportunities with the company. Companies have an incentive to hire those they have invested in with their time and training. If you work hard and stand out, your chance of being hired increases exponentially. Your internship is an audition; giving a polished performance will help land the part. That said, even if the internship does not lead to a direct job opportunity, it does lead to those connections discussed earlier within a particular industry. As the old saying goes, “it’s not what you know, but who you know.”


Finally, some will argue that an internship is merely a modern version of indentured servitude, but this is simply not the case. No one is expected to do multiple un-paid internships without the potential for growth. Additionally, no one is forced to do an internship at all. If people wish to take the low-paying job and parlay it into something greater, or simply focus on their studies and worry about their careers in the future, they are free to do that as well. Internships are just another road to the future. They allow those (who choose to take the risk) the chance to make the most of even an unpaid opportunity.

Won’t Work for Free

Hannah O’Neill

Most students today seem to have their fair share of anxiety about the future, a gnawing fear of what’s to come. Internships are often viewed as an antidote, a concrete step to help students better understand how coursework and career goals may align. After two years at college, I have heard countless friends rave about spectacular internships, but I also hear a great deal of young people reflecting on a less than perfect internship experience and using it to think critically about their futures. Does, “It was a great summer job… but I don’t know if I want to spend the rest of my life doing it,” sound familiar? Whether or not you want to pursue a full-time job after completing an internship, interns ideally leave with a better understanding of how they might operate as a worker, and whether a particular profession is fulfilling.


Internships can be a defining and thought-provoking educational experience. Sitting through a semester’s worth of university lectures, cramming for a midterm and final exam, even all those seemingly endless hours fussing and scribbling through notebooks… It can begin to feel tedious and disconnected from the workplace; what of the practical nature of the jobs many of us will one day, hopefully, fill? The experience of an internship extends beyond the quality of the job itself. Boring or bustling, social or solitary, an intern is in the thick of it all, exposed to the dark underbelly of being a working adult. Ah yes, from behind whatever cubicle, attic, or copy machine we lowly interns are stuck behind—we see it all! Unless you’d like the word “socialite” to grace the top of your C.V., no job is all fun and glamour, and an intern may actually get a handle on what it means to be an employee at a hospital or museum or law firm or non-profit. What better way to reign in some of that pre-graduation anxiety than to dip your toes in a career without fully committing?


If we can agree that internships are a valuable tool for students, shouldn’t they be available to all qualified students? When employers make the choice to offer unpaid internships, as many do, they make it impossible for a large portion of students to apply. It is cruel to deny qualified students the chance at these internship opportunities because of financial reasons. If we accept a merit based system as the fairest method of allocating other limited educational resources — from scholarships to college admission to classes — why should internships be treated differently? Every student should have an equally viable opportunity to pursue an internship in the field the student plans to enter. This simply is not the case if unpaid internships persist in their current form.

Unpaid internships effectively create a class divide, a divide evident in a student’s résumé. Being alive can get pretty expensive, especially when you are a student with high tuition payments and mounting debt. Even if you scrimp and save, rent and food are tremendous expenses ignored by an employer offering an unpaid internship, especially when that internship beckons you to one of our urban hubs or somewhere overseas.


I am not naïve enough to imagine that an ideal internship exists for every gung-ho student, but I have seen plenty of competent, well-qualified students forced to make tough choices about internships solely because they lack the financial means to support themselves without some sort of income. Many of us have friends, or friends of friends, forced to choose a less applicable paid internship or a waitressing job over an exciting (and expensive) unpaid internship Some students can’t afford the luxury of performing unpaid labor.


The issue of paying interns is not complicated. Interns often play an important role where they work and invest serious time commitments. To deny an intern pay is to exclude a range of potential applicants that need to make money in their free time. If interns are doing real work, why should they being doing it for free?


According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, they shouldn’t be. Unpaid interns are not permitted by the Department of Labor to perform necessary tasks that otherwise a paid employee would need to perform. Unfortunately, these regulations are rarely enforced.

Yes, the economy is rough. Businesses are struggling, but so are student (and many more non-student) workers. In fact, the state of our economy makes this issue more urgent. Students have fiscal responsibilities—not just to beer or shopping money—but to rent, grocery store bills, and often contributions to tuition. If you didn’t make money at your internship this summer or at school, your family was probably helping you out, and that is a tremendous blessing and a privilege. With that privilege comes the responsibility to evaluate and change a system that offers opportunity to wealthy students, but tells every one else to enjoy their summer waiting tables.

bottom of page