5 Defenses Of Unpaid Internships (That Are BS)

Summer is around the corner and students everywhere are partaking in unpaid internships of dubious ethics. There have been a lot of discussions on the legality of unpaid internships in the wake of recent lawsuits, but I want to talk about the justifications of unpaid internships.

If businesses want to continue hiring people to work for free and want to keep risking this kind of legal retribution, that’s their problem. It’s the excuses that have got to go, because I’m getting tired of companies pleading poverty, insulting peoples’ intelligence and accepting free work without providing anything of real value in return. So I’ve written out a list of the most common defenses of unpaid internship apologists and why they’re a load.

This article shouldn’t imply that I think all unpaid internship are inherently wrong. I’m not against them, but the water has been poisoned to such a degree that I understand why people stand against them on principle and I also understand the backlash they’ve been facing lately. It must be hard to sympathize with unpaid internships when you hear things like…


1. Unpaid internships can lead to jobs!

No, they don’t. They lead to the possibility of a job, one for which you may be competing with other interns or other people who haven’t applied, if there’s even a need or budget for a job in the first place. When you suggest that an unpaid internship could result in a job offer, you’re paying people with faith. You’re asking people to forego money on the chance that the stars will align and dozens of variables will come into play in the right way that provides a job opportunity.

Broader data suggests that unpaid internships don’t have the job waiting at the end of the program to the degree that defenders assume they do. When the National Association of Colleges and Employers polled 9,200 seniors from February through the end of April in 2013 they found that 63.1% of students with a paid internship had received at least one job offer. Compare this with 37% unpaid interns receiving at least job offers and the fact that 35% of students who had never interned received job offers as well.

The cited article goes back further to 2012, bringing up an Intern Bridge poll of 11,000 students with sophomore standing or higher and found the exact same results. 36% of paid interns received a job offer compared to just 17% of unpaid interns.

It’s unclear why unpaid interns receive job offers at such a lower rate than paid interns since the findings are consistent across different industries and students with similar GPAs. This author’s theory is that paid internships are more frequently considered an investment in a talent pool pipeline, and paid internships are a good way to gauge the best potential hires. Conversely, unpaid internships are generally a way of obtaining temporary free labor by companies who just want to pocket the savings (see point 4).

2. The experience matters most!

There are three problems with this assertion. First, it ignores the fact that paid internships also provide experience.

Second, experience is not compensation, nor is it no guarantee of eventual compensation in the form of a job offer (see point 1).

Third and most substantially, this argument is defenders of unpaid internships wanting to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, stories are rampant of interns doing menial work. One poll of 1,500 interns in the UK found that 31.6% said they felt placement workers in their firm were being “exploited”. 33.7% of companies were described as giving interns “menial” work. Here in the United States, the New York Times profiled the “experience” unpaid interns have received:

-Dana John, an N.Y.U. senior, spent an unpaid summer at a company that books musical talent, spending much of her days photocopying, filing and responding to routine e-mail messages for her boss.

-One Ivy League student said she spent an unpaid three-month internship at a magazine packaging and shipping 20 or 40 apparel samples a day back to fashion houses that had provided them for photo shoots.

-At Little Airplane, a Manhattan children’s film company, an N.Y.U. student who hoped to work in animation during her unpaid internship said she was instead assigned to the facilities department and ordered to wipe the door handles each day to minimize the spread of swine flu.

This is not relevant “experience” in any sense. There’s no justification for forsaking paid work in exchange for being able to photocopy and wipe door handles, however prestigious your business is.

On the other hand, there are students who report doing the exact same work as paid employees, which has resulted in media attention and backlash. While is definitely experience that matters, you can probably see the problem already. If interns are putting in the same work hours, doing the same work and entrusted with the same responsibilities as full-time employees, why aren’t they getting paid? Calling a job an “internship” is – legally and ethically – not a free pass that makes it okay for an employer not pay for your time.

Thus we arrive at the catch-22 for unpaid internship defenders. You can either admit that unpaid interns do menial work, in which case the “experience” argument loses credibility, or you can assert that unpaid internships are doing the same type of work they would as a paid intern or employee. If the latter is the case it raises the question of why the intern isn’t being paid where other people working at the company are.

3. It gets your foot in the door!

So do paid internships.

Beyond that, internships aren’t the only ways to network. Between connecting with people on Twitter or LinkedIn, attending Meetup groups, joining Google Hangouts or online career groups or just using expanded online networks, it’s much easier to get your foot in the door than it was five or ten years ago. Even if it weren’t, this is still not an excuse to forsake pay.

4. Companies can’t afford to pay for their interns!

This gets a little tricky when you keep in mind that there are legitimately some nonprofit organizations that have no budget for paid interns. One of my clients works with these types of nonprofits.

However, this excuse gets extremely problematic when you consider the types of companies and organizations that don’t pay interns. Let’s start with a major one: White House internships are unpaid. This is the same White House estimated by researchers to have a $1.4 billion annual budget including $20 million for vacations, $6 million for the White House grounds and $7.9 million for the White House staff budget. So the idea that the White House cannot afford to pay interns is absurd.

If you think I’m beating up on the White House, barely a third of U.S. Senators pay their interns. Among politicians who don’t pay their interns is Congressman Al Greene who ironically  sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage.

In terms of private companies, that Atlantic article tells the story of two unpaid interns at The Nation who appealed their situations and were later given the promise of minimum wage. Hearst Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Elite Model Management, and Harper’s Bazaar have all been tied up in lawsuits over unpaid internships. Moreover, some of these companies have actually started paying interns in light of lawsuit decisions or public attention.

So yes, Fox Searchlight Pictures and the White House are completely capable of being able to pay interns. They don’t want to. There’s a difference.

5. It’s volunteering, not interning!

I’ve heard this argument floated by a well-meaning Forbes columnist and it’s purely semantic. Volunteering is an altruistic activity where there’s no expectation of payment and there are usually much more flexible arrangements when it comes to work hours and the type of work you do. You can’t volunteer for a for-profit company, and even if you’re working for a nonprofit this doesn’t hold up. Internships are career-driven; if you’re doing this to experience a company’s real-time operations, learn more about an area of business or gain exposure to an industry, you’re interning. With volunteering, learning about business or developing a particular skill set are perks are an additional benefit, not the main focus.

Don’t fall for this. It’s a linguistic tactic to deflect the increasing stigma of unpaid internships and nothing more.

Again, this article isn’t to collectively denounce unpaid internships. I think that in some respects they do have their place, but in the interests of ending this article on a positive note I would encourage employers to remember graphs like this. Beyond the questionable legal nature of unpaid internships, paid interns are happier and more productive. You’re more likely to acquire and retain better talent and it will improve your company image. Ask yourself if you want to remembered as a top place to work in Forbes or Inc. or if you want to be remembered as that latest company that lost a lawsuit against unpaid interns demanding back pay.

UPDATE on 5/27/2015: When I brought this article up in casual conversation with a friend, she talked about her own interns. Her nonprofit, Kids Helping Kids, pays interns a stipend for their work. If a comparatively tiny, localized nonprofit can pay interns without going bankrupt, I think Fox Searchlight Pictures will be able to handle it.