My Advice to Students On Unpaid Internships

Disclaimer time: Yes, I will be unleashing both barrels on unpaid internships again. Let me state in advance that if you’re a political campaign or a nonprofit or otherwise a student looking to work for the preceding, you are exempt from this. These the types of organizations that generally live or die based on their volunteers and it’s where volunteers generally do critical work that they really, genuinely can’t afford to pay people for. So you’re excused, carry on. As for businesses and governmental offices? You’re not getting off the hook.

Second disclaimer: Credit where credit is due to Jim Sterling of The Jimquisition fame, whose video on unpaid writing gigs partially inspired this episode. The message was so on point that I felt it needed to be reiterated in a larger context.

Remember a few years ago when I railed against proprietors of unpaid internships and implored for them to just admit they wanted free labor rather than use excuses? Fun times.

Unfortunately the problem seems to have only gotten progressively worse despite mounting criticism of the practice and a slew of lawsuits seeking reclaim lost wages. It’s gone in exactly the direction I predicted it would on this very website. Entry level positions are being phased out in favor of internships, creating a paradoxical environment where people need to work for free in order to secure paying work:

The temporary positions are now considered a “must have” on the CV of any young person seeking a job, with nearly half of professional employers admitting that candidates without work experience “have little or no chance of receiving a job offer”.

If anything, it’s even worse than this. Between paying for their own food, transportation and general living expenses unpaid interns are now expected to pay in order to work. If I wanted to do that I would have gone to graduate school. The worst is when unpaid interns forced to take additional, paying work to subsidize their “actual” unpaid work so they can afford the privilege of working for free.

For those who have slogged through unpaid internships – which I imagine is the vast majority of you at this point – you’re probably familiar with what you’re allegedly being paid with in lieu of actual money. Many businesses and government offices – all the way up to Fortune 500 companies and the White House – offer “experience” and “exposure.” Basically, you get a chance to get some relevant work experience and maybe get your work seen and heard before securing actual, paying work. Maybe. As I noted in my original article, unpaid internships seem less likely to steer you to full time offers than paid ones.

I already talked about how thoroughly the “experience” myth has been debunked as a way to get free work from impressionable young students, especially when you realize you can’t have it both ways. Either these interns are doing the same work as paid employees – which raises the question of why they aren’t being paid – or they’re wiping down door handles to prevent the spread of swine flu (actual example in my original article), which is not meaningful “experience” in any sense of the word.

So I have a very simple piece of advice for students and recent graduates working somewhere for free.

Leave. Immediately. Declare your intention to quit and walk out the door, and don’t look back.

I don’t care if it’s an unpaid internship at the White House. If you’re working for a place that can’t afford to or won’t bother to pay you, that place doesn’t have the credibility needed to give you the exposure, experience or eventual job you’re being promised regardless of how prestigious it may seem to you.

If you’re concerned about the name recognition of working at a place like the White House or NBC, here’s a truth you tend to realize after 2-3 years in the workforce:

Hiring managers don’t give a crap where you work. It’s all about what you do.

A paid internship where you did relevant work at a no name company is going to be far more impressive than wiping down door handles to minimize the risk of swine flu at a big company. An internship with the White House or NBC may look prestigious on paper and your parents can brag about it to other prestige-obsessed parents, but otherwise it has no impact on your life.

Will it make a recruiter pause during the assembly line of resume analysis? Probably, but that won’t mean much if they’re not impressed with what you actually did. In all likelihood the resume will go into the bin just as quickly.

Never get starry eyed by the privilege of working somewhere, no matter how prestigious it is in your mind. Places like the White House or NBC don’t pay their interns because they know they can get away with it and companies without that brand recognition will fluff their places of employment in order to convince you that it’s worth working for free. It’s not, and never forget that “exposure” does not fairly compensate you for your work, pay your bills, or promise you a job.

This applies even if your internship is paid: Make it work for you, not the other way around. Never bust your ass trying to make a name for a company, especially as an unpaid intern, because they certainly won’t make a name for you. You can be let go at any second and you’ll only have what you got out of the internship to trade on.

I can’t personally speak for other industries, but if you want to work for free in web development, media, writing, or video production you’re far better off going it alone and starting a blog, or a YouTube channel, or a freelancing business for all the “help” that unpaid internships will provide. Build your brand and your own name.

Furthermore, never trust companies who tell you that they’re going to take care of you, that they look after their own, and that the best days of your career start with them. If they were going to take care of you, they would be paying you.

We may be a bunch of entitled Millennials, I think a fair wage is something we’re quite reasonably entitled to.