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Can we continue to justify unpaid internships?

Photo: wikicommons

A few years ago I graduated from college. Unemployed, I decided to take an unpaid internship. I did it for many of the reasons that have made them so commonplace today: lack of available entry level jobs, a chance to get my foot in the door at a well-respected organization, and an opportunity to build my resume. While I did make some valuable connections, my experience was not without its share of classic intern drudgery. I shudder to remember the days of stuffing thousands of name badges into their plastic holders prior to a large event.

Things worked out for me though. In a happy coincidence, a position opened shortly after my internship ended and I got the job! While getting hired made it worth it for me, the unfortunate reality is that many internships do not lead to employment, and the experience can be frustrating, disillusioning, and quite simply a waste of time.

Many young people today feel constant pressure to make their resume stand out from the crowd, and will go to great lengths to get a leg up. This has led to widespread acceptance of the unpaid internship as a necessary rung on the career ladder. Having done one myself, I’m not convinced that they are consistently fair or worthwhile. Sometimes, even their legality is questionable.   

Are they worth it?

Unfortunately, successful completion of an unpaid internship rarely leads to a guarantee of employment. A 2013 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that there was little difference between the employment prospects for graduates who had completed an unpaid internship and those that had not done one. A Canadian study also recently revealed that, since 2008, only 22 out of 961 unpaid interns in federal departments and agencies were later hired by the government. Pretty terrible odds.

Interns often complain about feeling underutilized and undervalued, and since internships typically last only a few months, more valuable long-term projects are rare. While an internship may look good on a resume, the real skills gained can be few and far between. And in the case that an intern really is doing valuable, hands-on work, shouldn’t they be paid for it?

Are they fair?

Unpaid internships can increase inequality. Not everyone can afford to work for free. As much of my generation in the Western world is saddled with student debt, unpaid internships certainly don’t help. Those who can’t afford to work for free are often forced to seek employment in lesser-valued jobs. One of the selling points of internships is that they can lead to valuable networking connections, but by excluding less-privileged candidates (who likely would benefit most from making connections) unpaid internships can perpetuate structures of inequality.

In the internship world, the phrase “pay to play” definitely applies. Companies like Dream Careers offer a guaranteed position for those who can afford the price tag. The Paris internship rings in at $9,499, and internships in cities like Madrid, London, and Hong Kong are also on offer. I would be the first to say that travel and global experiences are immensely valuable, but opportunities like this are not financially realistic for the majority of people.

Perhaps my most unsettling discovery while researching this article was the concept of bidding for internships.Charity Buzz, an online auction platform, currently has a few internships on offer. The offerings include a 4-6 week music agent summer internship, “perfect for the college student in your life.” The estimated value of a 3-week internship at a microcredit organization was listed as $10,000. In my opinion, auctioning off internships crosses a moral line that devalues the efforts of those who work hard, apply, and interview for their work.  

Are they legal?

The legality of unpaid internships can be questionable. In my home province of Ontario, Canada, unpaid internships are not legal unless they are 1) approved by a secondary school board, college, or university; 2) are part of preparation for a certain profession; or 3) the intern is considered a “trainee” (typically for vocations).

After a crackdown last year by the Canadian Labour Ministry, major magazines like Toronto Life and The Walrus were forced to let go of their interns who were not students. The Walrus later hired some interns with pay. Organizations like the Canadian Intern Association have entered the debate to advocate against intern exploitation and are working to “improve the internship experience for both interns and employers.” There have also been a number of high profile lawsuits in the US, including cases of unpaid interns suing major companies like Fox Searchlight, NBCUniversal, Sony, and Columbia Records. The legal question of unpaid internships is an ongoing issue, and I think we will see many more challenges to the practice, in Canada and elsewhere.

Overall, unpaid internships have not proven to be consistently worth it.

Too often, interns are not doing valuable, educational work, and if they are, it makes sense that they should be paid for it! Companies, federal agencies, non-profits, and all entities that use unpaid internships should seriously evaluate the worth of these programs. I think it is time that interns be paid for their work, and that better standards be set to ensure that the experience is enriching and beneficial.  With a consistent set of standards regarding what can and cannot be asked of unpaid interns, we can move towards guaranteeing that brewing an excellent pot of coffee isn’t one of an intern's most valuable skills.


Allie Kehoe