Weighing in on the “unpaid internship” debate

sign unpaid intern
sign unpaid intern (Photo credit: pameladrew212)

On a local radio call-in talk show today,  the subject was “unpaid internships”. It’s been in the news a lot recently, and it seems to me that a lot of fairly unscrupulous companies are taking advantage of getting access to free labour under the guise of “unpaid internships”.

Full disclosure: A young German woman worked for me a few years ago as an (unpaid) intern. She sought out my company (Career Coaching International) and approached me about taking her on as a summer intern as part of her university program requirement. It was great to work with her and I tried to get her involved in all the different parts of the company. Based on that experience, I’m a big fan of the school-based intern approach. To come to grips with this issue, I believe we need to deconstruct this thing called “internship” and  examine the component parts.

Thinking about my career as a series of “stepping stones” where any specific internship is just another stepping stone to some (admittedly probably fuzzy) goal, we have to ask ourselves: “What do I want to get out of an internship, as the person providing the labour”? 

  • real hands-on experience in some field, company, or industry of interest to me;
  • suitable amount of time in the position to develop some perspective and competency;
  • build my network through getting to know other people in that company and field;
  • possible broader education experiences (conferences, training, etc.) as available;
  • some minimum payment if possible. Note this is not a critical requirement.

That’s pretty much about it, as the job-doer. So, once I address those elements to at least a reasonable degree, the best career strategy is to move on or move up — either out into the broader industry to look for similar (paying) roles where I can leverage my new found skill set, taking on other different (possibly intern) positions where I can gain new skills and insights, or stay in the company and move (up) to a paid position.

And as the company manager, if I am reasonably ethical, I am trying to help out both my company and the individual by (1) providing a real role that needs to get done to someone new to the field; (2) helping that individual see how things “really work” through training, on-the-job experience, and selective mentoring; (3) getting real work done for the company that is valuable and useful, and (4) testing out a new individual to see if they might be a good fit for longer term employment with the company.

So, whether the internship position is paid or not paid is, to my way of thinking, not the real issue to grind down on. The real question from the intern position should be: am I (still) learning and gaining anything that I really value? If yes, then the “internship” is still valuable and you may want to continue in it.

If no, then it is time to move on. And if you are working for a decent manager, they will tell you the same thing. Or they will engage you in a “value” conversation to figure out how they can help you dial up the value you perceive from doing what you are doing. Or they will give you more things of real value to do. Even if they still can’t afford to pay you.

If they tell you anything else, they’re just using you as free labour, and they won’t ever be thinking of you as anything else. In which case, it is clearly time to leave. Your time and real career opportunities are much more valuable than that.





5 thoughts on “Weighing in on the “unpaid internship” debate

  1. Fair enough if you’re a student who’s in a comfortable position financially, and can afford to work it into the bigger schedule of completing your studies; and if it’s short-term. But otherwise, how do you pay the rent (or student loan) or buy groceries?

  2. Thanks for your comment, and question. My take is that it’s a balancing act of money-generation and experience-getting. If you get both in one place, that’s great. If you can’t find that combination, then how much “unpaid work experience” can you afford to take on and what are your options for the rest of your work week in terms of paid gigs? So, 3 or 4 days a week in a low-wage menial job to pay the bills and a couple of days per week as unpaid intern to gain experience? What can you make work? What degrees of flexibility do you have?

    My point is any employer who is telling you: “(1) we will not pay you; (2) we only want you full time and will provide you no work flexibility, (3) we’re not interested in helping you network, learn new things, and gaining greater experience, and (4) we will replace you with another unpaid intern at the drop of a hat if you push us at all” is really telling you:

    “we don’t give a shit about you or your career, and are only using you.”

    If that is the case, then better to leave now and go put your time and effort into something more valuable.

    So yes, it’s difficult to find the right balance of pay vs. experience however one needs to keep working that and keep making adjustments until you get the right mix that works for you and your specific situation. Otherwise you fall into some deep rut of either unpaid slavery or joining the working poor in perpetuity. Both of which suck and don’t get you anywhere you want to get to…

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