Think You’re Helping Students With Unpaid Internships? Think Again

I’ve never been a fan of unpaid internships and I’ve never been with a company that has offered them (at least on my watch). People who work for the benefit of the company (and I’d argue that most internships are structured that way) deserve to be paid, at least minimum wage.

A company that pulls in a decent profit can’t afford to pay an intern minimum wage for 5-10 hours a week? Spare me the excuses. If that’s really the case, you already can’t afford interns, even if you don’t pay them at all.

Still, people who reluctantly defend unpaid internships always go back to the old tired defense of this practice: any internship, even an unpaid one, is better than nothing. It helps these students out and gets them experience, even if they don’t get a paycheck. Hard to argue against that.

But does that unpaid experience really help them get a job? According to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, that answer is an emphatic no.

Unpaid internship reality

A post last week on The Wall Street Journal’s At Work blog covered the survey. The results are pretty clear:

The group released a study this week showing that 60 percent of 2012 graduates who worked a paid internship got at least one job offer, while just 37 percent of those in unpaid gigs got any offers. That’s slightly – only slightly – better than the offer rate for graduates who skipped internships entirely, at 36 percent.

Unpaid internships are ubiquitous. A 2010 survey from NACE found that nearly 95 percent of member schools allow organizations to post unpaid internship opportunities, and less than a third of those require students to earn academic credit or some form of certificate for their work. Intern Bridge, a recruiting research and consulting firm, found that more than half of internships reported for its 2011 Internship Salary Report were unpaid.”

So paid internships are not only better because you get paid by a company instead of exploited because you’re hard up for experience, but also, because it will help you actually get a job offer out of college? Not only that, having an unpaid internship is barely (and I mean barely) better than having no internship at all.

What excuses are left?

I don’t know the reasoning behind the substantial difference in the success of paid versus unpaid internships and NACE’s survey didn’t go into that detail. If I can speculate for a moment though, I do believe companies on a de facto basis treat paid staff (even minimally paid staff) differently than unpaid employees.

If an unpaid intern doesn’t do anything during their internship, it isn’t any skin off your back as an employer. With a paid employee, even a temporary one, there is an expectation of both learning and application. And if they are sitting back all day, swigging coffee and watching YouTube videos, you’ll probably be a lot less tolerant of that.

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That’s not to say that there aren’t some terrific unpaid internship opportunities out there. I know of a few companies that coordinate heavily with college career centers for credit and actually put these students through rigorous training. They use it as a serious testing ground for new recruits.

A little pay — and greater expectations

But that’s not the norm and we should stop pretending that it is.

Being paid is closest to a true employment experience as anything. While paid interns might get more leeway than normal staff, there is still an expectation of interns to learn, grow and execute on what they learn.

They will get an opportunity to create something of value for an organization (something you literally can’t do under current unpaid internship rules) and get a check for it. It won’t be big but if that experience is better respected (and results in a significantly better chance of getting a job after graduation), maybe it is time for students to hold out for the money.

And if employers really care about their interns and their future job prospects, they’ll pay them.


8 Comments on “Think You’re Helping Students With Unpaid Internships? Think Again

  1. As one of the owners of job board, I’ve also been railing for years against corporations using unpaid internships. Plain and simple, it is theft. It is theft by the corporation of the labors of the student and harken back to the days before minimum wage laws took effect. Every argument in favor of unpaid internships can be made in favor of paying people below the minimum wage and very, very few people would advocate that we should return to those days.

    The study by NACE will hopefully put the last nail in the argument by proponents of unpaid internships. A small number honestly believed they were doing the students a favor and, in some cases, they were. But the bulk of employers were deluding themselves into thinking that stealing the labors of students was somehow ethical because those students were gaining valuable work experience. The NACE study shows that simply not to be the case.

    Nothing in the study prevents non-profits or government agencies from continuing to hire unpaid interns. I would prefer to see no unpaid internships but at least non-profits and government agencies don’t have a profit motive for failing to pay their employees. That isn’t much of a distinction, but it is a distinction.

    1. I don’t know if I agree with the government agency thing. For me, it is about ability to pay and government agencies take in a ton of dough. Just because they misappropriate it doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability to pay. They choose not to, though.

      As far as non-profits, that’s a bit different of course. I would still argue that using them as you would normally use paid staff is still weak. 

  2. I’d like to know more about that study, because I would guess that the students who worked paid internships were already a better qualified group overall than the students who worked unpaid internships … because paid internships tend to be more competitive and thus the students who end up in them are stronger candidates to begin with. 

    So the groups themselves were likely already different before anyone looked at their job hunting results, and so it lowers the value of the study in drawing conclusions about the value of unpaid work.

    Granted, I come from the nonprofit sector, but I’ve long been a proponent of unpaid internships there. I’ve hired many unpaid interns who I never would have hired if the position was paid — it would have gone to a more competitive candidate. So those interns got experience that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten.

    1. I can’t tell if you’re making the argument for me or not. Paid internships absolutely attract better talent because it makes the opportunity available to anyone, regardless of their ability to work for free. That’s one of my primary arguments for offering paid internships in general. 

      Does that influence the results? Sure. But you don’t buy an argument that getting a competitive, paid internship might inspire better performance and lead to better job prospects? I know peers in school who left unpaid internships in the midst of them. I don’t remember one who left a paid one. By the very nature of it, I think paid internships are better for everyone involved. 

      The non-profit sector is the exception, not the rule, to the question of whether or not to pay interns. I would argue that unpaid internships are themselves limiting and exclusive to people with means or the ability to take on debt. 

      1. Sorry for not being clear!  What I meant was this:  We have a study that says that unpaid internships aren’t very helpful in getting paid jobs later. But I’m arguing that the group of people taking unpaid internships are probably less qualified than the group taking paid ones, so it’s not a useful comparison. I’ve hired unpaid interns who I never would have hired for paid work at that stage in their careers, meaning that they got job experience for their resume that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, which would have made their job search even more difficult.

        1. But there is virtually no difference between those who worked unpaid internships and those who didn’t work any internship at all (37% of those got a job offer with an unpaid internship versus 36% without any internship). 

          So yes, perhaps the paid internship thing might be a self-fulfilling prophecy (I don’t think that’s all of it) but when you compare the employability of those who took unpaid internships versus those who didn’t do any internship at all, how is this unpaid experience helping? 

          1. I don’t know — I’d like to know more about the study, its methodology, etc.!  But it’s totally counterintuitive that experience wouldn’t help in a job search, so I wonder what other differences there might be between those two groups.

        2. I disagree with your assessment that unpaid internship holders are probably less qualified than the group taking paid ones.

           I’ve held both unpaid & paid internships and my peers who have taken unpaid internships have been of high quality- often bringing unique skillsets to the table. Of course there are some who aren’t but the same can be said for paid internships.

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