My thoughts on unpaid internships

There has been an uptick in Tweets about unpaid internships lately, causing some discourse about these types of opportunities on social media. As a person who has now had both paid and unpaid internship experiences, I thought I would share my thoughts on this issue.

“Internships” are largely unregulated which is both a good and bad thing. This means that organizations can shape their internship programs just about however they want, whether its fair to the students they’re hiring or not. (For the record: I’ve never felt taken advantage of at my internships, but I have certainly heard about students who have.)

I have had internships that are entirely unpaid, as with my role at Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis. I’ve worked with small organizations who pay their interns with project-based stipends. I’m currently participating in two internship programs, one which pays by the hour and another that provides a bi-weekly flat stipend. Internship programs vary greatly from organization to organization. This individuality of the programs, in my opinion, means that the legality of unpaid internships is not a black-and-white problem.

As I mentioned once in a blog for Indiana INTERNnet about what to consider when choosing between internships, a student’s personal budget is absolutely key when it comes to the feasibility of unpaid roles. College is expensive, financial aid can be hard to come by and oftentimes it doesn’t make sense for students to accept an unpaid position.

I personally have turned down opportunities for this reason before. I was not shy about letting companies know the reason (I provide it to them politely and professionally of course). If you can’t afford to take an unpaid internship – don’t. Though it might be a fantastic experiential learning opportunity for you, I totally get that you also have to be able to pay your tuition and your rent. Every time I have had to make this decision, I have told myself that better opportunities will come along, and they always have. 

If you’re in a financial position where an unpaid internship is feasible, then you should consider how it is going to aid your future career carefully. For me, I worked at Girls Inc. for several months and learned more about the nonprofit sector, which is an area I have been interested in for a while. I loved the organization, the staff and the mission that my work stood for. Would it have been cool if they had paid me? Of course. But they didn’t, and that worked out okay for me and my situation at the time (which I understand is a privilege that not every student has).

I’m not totally against unpaid internships, because I have seen firsthand how difficult it is for small organizations – particularly nonprofits – to pay their regular staff. For some places, having an unpaid intern is necessary for the organization’s survival.

What I am against, is large, for-profit companies who refuse to pay their workers an adequate wage and do not pay their interns at all. I think that certain regulations should be put in place to help prevent students from being taken advantage of. Even if you don’t have a Bachelor’s degree, you’re still there, putting in work, contributing ideas and making an impact at the company. You deserve to be paid for your expertise and time. It has been proven that making one’s employees feel valued and appreciated can increase their productivity and that includes interns as well.

Feeling valued isn’t always about the money, although being paid a fair wage is certainly a factor for many employees. In my experience, you can still be paid decently and feel like your work isn’t being appreciated. Conversely, I have done made significant contributions to organizations without receiving a paycheck and still felt like a member of the team.

The good news for college students is, unpaid internships are becoming less common, largely due to the fact that students are not as willing to accept them. And please don’t get me started on the supposed “entitlement” of young people who refuse to work for free – we’re just trying to make ends meet and not suffocate under the amassing debts that society has taught us we need in order to be successful. Not-so-fun fact: college graduates spend about $350/month paying off the cost of their education.

So, while some vital organizations rely on unpaid internships to better their communities, I don’t believe that big corporations should be allowed to utilize the same practices. Fortunately, we seem to be moving in the right direction and are starting to call out companies who are guilty of exploiting interns.


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