Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?

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Unpaid internships can be a touchy subject for a lot of people.  For some, it’s a temporary sacrifice to get one step closer to a paying job. For others, it’s just a tool companies that use to exploit people for free labor.  So, the question for today is, should we abolish unpaid internships?

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices. Click to see this video and lesson plan on KQED Learn.

How did unpaid internships ever become a thing in the first place?

Back in the day, from the middle ages up through the 1800s, apprenticeships were THE way to get into the skilled trades. Want to get into a fabulous career-making glass? You didn’t go get a BA in glassblow-ology. You apprenticed for a master glassblower. The whole experience was like a really long and well-structured internship before there were internships. Today, one in three Americans 25 and older have a college degree.  And these new grads don’t want to be glassblowers. They’re competing for a limited number of entry-level jobs in fields like tech, finance, media, and fashion. So, you’ve got more people than ever before competing for a limited number of jobs. And that’s ushered in the rise of the internship. New grads now have to prove to companies that they’re worth hiring for entry-level jobs. And the bigger and fancier the company, the more people want to intern there, even if it’s unpaid.

Why do some people take unpaid internships?

Not all industries are the same when it comes to internships. If you’re into finance or tech or engineering, paid internships are generally the norm.  Jobs in those fields pay well and are in demand, so those companies prioritize paying their interns. But that’s not the case when it comes to other industries like entertainment, publishing, fashion, the arts, or most do-good nonprofits.  In those fields, unpaid internships are common, because the number of people who want them is greater than the actual number of internships available. So if an unpaid internship is your best shot to do that, there a lot of people who will find a way to make it work. Because it’s not just what you do that’s important. It’s who you meet. It’s networking. It’s getting in front of important people -- the decision-makers -- and getting noticed.


What are the cons of unpaid internships?

There’s an unfair reality behind unpaid internships. They’re way easier for people who have some outside source of cash, so they tend to attract people who come from more privileged backgrounds. People who don’t come from money either have to work a paid gig on top of the unpaid internship or just flat out decide that it won’t work financially. And unpaid internships don’t necessarily guarantee you a paying job in the future. A survey from 2015 found that 44 percent of unpaid interns got job offers with a median starting salary around $34,000. Paid interns generally fared better. They got job offers 72 percent of the time and made more money -- around $53,000.


Internship Fact Sheet (U.S. Dept. of Labor)

Job Offer Rates for Interns (NACE)

History of Interns (Time)

When Is It OK to Not Pay an Intern? (ProPublica)

Paid Internships Lead To More Job Offers Than Unpaid Internships (Fast Company)

What happened to the intern revolution? (New Republic)