Why an Unpaid Internship Might Not Be Worth It

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Carlos Mark Vera had a slew of internships while in college. He interned at the White House, the House of Representatives, and at the European Parliament. But he never got paid. And he had a hard time being able to afford to work for free.

“Being a low-income student was difficult,” Vera said. “In Congress, I noticed that the people who looked like me were the janitors.”

So, in November 2016, he founded Pay Our Interns, a bipartisan nonprofit campaign that urges companies and organizations to pay for interns.

Internships face lax regulation

In January 2018, the Department of Labor released new guidelines on how companies can hire (but not pay) interns. Lax rules make it easy for interns to do work without compensation.

Under the guidelines, if an employer can prove you’ll benefit educationally, the internship is valid even if you aren’t getting paid. They give companies more flexibility in defining the work that interns should be doing. If you’re hired as an intern and feel your tasks don’t benefit you professionally, you’re doing free labor. And who wants to work for free?

Internships, or temporary jobs to help you gain work skills, are a great way to gain experience. It shows employers that you’re serious about working in your desired field. It also lets you test out a field you’re interested in but not fully committed to yet. Sometimes, companies pay interns to do that work. But unpaid internships might do more harm than good for employers and workers alike.

Unpaid internships typically aren’t worth it

Unpaid internships have a negative impact on graduate employment outcomes, according to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Some of these negative impacts include:

  • Employers that don’t pay interns aren’t likely to convert them to paid employees. So unpaid internships aren’t guaranteed employment spots with the employer you intern with or even a different company.
  • Unpaid internships can hold up your career. Having an unpaid internship can hurt your chances of finding a job right out of college, sometimes keeping you out of a related field for up to nine months after graduation.
  • Taking an unpaid internship means you need to be able to work without earning money. But if you have student loans to repay or any other debt, working for free might not be a viable option for you.

Vera said many employers who offer unpaid internships justify them by saying they’re offering opportunities, but not everyone has the financial means to take advantage of those opportunities. “You need a flight there, to pay rent and other things,” he said. “How can you pay bills while doing your internships? Interns are fetching coffee and making copies. If you’re going to do an internship, make sure it’s worth your time.”

Pay Our Interns believes that a student’s socioeconomic status shouldn’t be a barrier to getting real-world experience. Unpaid internships can cost you nearly $13,000, a CNBC report said in 2017. Vera said it’s much harder for graduates nowadays to get quality work.

“In my parent’s generation, you could get a job with a high school diploma,” he said. “For us, you have to have a degree and experience. Internships can cost $9,000 to $12,000. Over a million students each year do internships. But no one is making sure they’re accessible for all folks.”

Some benefits of unpaid internships

While free labor can hurt college students in many ways, unpaid internships do have advantages.

For one thing, getting experience in any field you’re interested in without committing to a full-time job is helpful — especially if you aren’t entirely sold on that career path. Unpaid internships give you insight and training you might not be able to get otherwise.

They also help you boost your resume. Having experience when applying for a job — whether through internships or having a side-hustle — can set you apart from the competition. It shows employers you’ve done the job before, and you’re capable of doing it again.

Free labor can cost employers

Ed2010, an organization that helps college students and recent grads break into the magazine media industry, lists job postings for free. It will post unpaid internships on its job board, but at a cost of $30 to the company.

Chandra Turner, the founder and president of Ed2010, said the site has been charging for posting unpaid internships for about a decade. And she says it’s a pretty good deal.

“Most job boards charge a couple [of] hundred dollars for a post,” Turner said. “We much prefer that internships are paid. It allows students outside of NYC [New York City] and of greater economic diversity to gain experience in the industry. I don’t think the case should be any different for journalism jobs than any other industry.”

Employers who practice what they preach

Bill Fish, the co-founder of sleep and wellness site Tuck, doesn’t believe in unpaid internships and makes it a point to pay everyone who works for him.

“We abolished slavery in this country back in the 1800s, and if someone is doing work for you, they should get paid,” he said. “You want people to be happy when they are in the office, and paying them goes a long way in that department.”

Tuck, which launched in late 2015, had an intern in summer 2017 who earned $20 an hour for a 40-hour work week, according to Fish. He doesn’t think unpaid internships or those offering college credits instead of money are worth it for employers.

“For the employer, at least to me, it gives the message that you’re cheap,” he said. “If you’re going to try to attract talent, you need to show that your company is a great place to work; and frankly it portrays a bad image to the intern regardless.”

Students are worth paying for, Fish said. So they should know their worth.

“There is a certain amount of independence felt when you don’t have to ask your parents for money while in college,” he said. “Don’t sell yourself short. Show that you can bring value to a company even if only over the summer, but get paid [for] doing so!”

More paid internships are coming

Pay Our Interns is working toward changing the policy and perception about interns, starting with Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In summer 2017, the group released a study called “Experience Doesn’t Pay The Bills: Why Paid Internships Are a Must in College.” The report lists every lawmaker in Congress who does and doesn’t pay interns.

Since then, many senators including Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., have changed the practice from unpaid internships to paid, Vera says.

“And they’re going to students who need it,” he said.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.