The Right to Earn A Living: Why I Don’t Believe in Unpaid Internships

By Posted in - Uncategorized on April 23rd, 2009 13 Comments

We all know that the professional world is changing.  Brands are on Facebook, executives are blogging, and young professionals like myself can find jobs using Twitter.  However, some things will always stay the same… or so I hope.

MoneyIn the early 80′s, my mom came to America as an immigrant from the Philippines.  She believed that this country afforded her the luxury that her home country did not – the right to earn a living.  She believed that through hard work, networking, and perseverance, she would have the opportunity to not only take care of herself, but to give back to those whom she loved.

She believed in the American dream.

My mom, along with the countless others who came before and after her, made a choice to find success in this country.  As immigrants, they did not come expecting charity or aid from the government.  They came with no sense of entitlement.  Instead, they came with purpose and a work ethic.  They knew how to save money because they couldn’t afford not to.

Where is the American dream today?

When I look at the world around me, I see the fibre of America unraveling.

Adults are losing their jobs while soon to be college graduates are applying for internships.

College admissions is more competitive than ever, and the cost of a four-year program at most tier one schools is a $200K investment.

Students are graduating with more credit card debt than in years past thanks to an adult world that has done a pretty awful job of demonstrating how to manage personal finances.

Young people in this country no longer understand how to save as a result of living in a world defined by excess and loans.

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I was prompted to write this post after reading a comment from John Cass who expressed that “sometimes you don’t have to pay for interns, gen y will throw themselves at you.” After expressing my belief that employers must reward workers, I got the following responses directed towards me:

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In my opinion, employers can afford to mentor AND pay their interns ($10-$15/hour or $500-$2000 stipends for the semester).  What I don’t think we can afford is to tell young people that it’s okay to not have a source of income.  I understand the value of professional networking and I understand the value of learning from experienced professionals.  However, I also understand the burden of being young.

To put things into perspective, when you’re in college, it’s not enough to have tuition and room and board taken care of.  Chances are, you need some kind of suplemental income in order to pay for things like a laptop, books, and lab fees.  If you’re in an urban setting, it’s virutally impossible to resist the temptation of eating out once in a while or purchasing a monthly subway or rail pass.  For those at rural schools, having a car is usually helpful and travel home during the semester can really add up.

There are leisure and recreational expenses to account for, things like spring break trips, movies, sporting events, fraternity dues, dance classes, and maybe the occasional beer or two (*sarcasm*).

Given these expenses, how can we justify an unpaid internship?  John was right in that I know tons of students who would jump at the opportunity to work for free.  However, the debate isn’t whether students will work for free or not, but whether they should.

In my opinion, free labor is the antithesis of what makes us Americans.

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In the end, we’ll all make choices for our own personal reasons and find ways of justifying either side.  Some students will choose unpaid internships while others will choose to work in jobs like retail, bartending, or mailroom envelop stuffing.  The former will benefit from corporate networking and training while the latter will benefit by working towards financial independence.

If you were a student or recent graduate in today’s recession, which route would you choose?

Photo credit: emdot

(13) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Sarah Fowler -

    April 24, 2009 at 3:35 am

    It is a horrible and often unfortunate generalization to assume college students looking for internships already have their basic needs paid for. I put myself through school and had to pay tuition, rent, insurance, groceries, etc. myself. I actually did it without loans because I was able to make $12.50 an hour at several intern-type jobs (and was able to gain valuable experience so I was qualified for more than an entry-level position after graduation).

    Many friends of mine in similar situations, however, were forced to work waitressing or retail jobs to pay the bills, missing out on the awesome networking and experience the privileged kids who could take free internships got. The kids willing to work their butts off to put themselves through school are the ones far more likely to be valuable to your company both during and after the internship; make the investment and pay them *something*.

  • joneilortiz -

    April 24, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    Though there are of course exceptions, internships by definition favor the rich and privileged. How else could one work for free, often full time, in a city like New York or LA? Sure, some non-privileged people can make it work through all sorts of tricks, but generally speaking if you can work for free for that long, you have a safety net or background financing that most people simply don’t enjoy.

    Internships should for this reason be illegal. They’re how privileged people often get their foot in the door – to a company, or for a given career – and for that reason overwhelmingly favor those who, ironically, don’t need the extra help. Even worse – (I went to a college with a dramatically wealthy student body) – the people who do get those internships never realize how instrumental they were to the launching of their careers. In fact, they barely think about it, and are generally completely unaware of the restrictions preventing most people from pursuing them. In their humble opinion, it was all them. They worked hard, they deserve it, and the playing field, as far as they can tell, is as flat as can be.

  • Alexa -

    April 26, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    @sarah – I look at recent graduates our age and I find the ones who are most competent when it comes to handling life’s challenges, are the ones who have had to be more independent as students. It’s really so unfortunate when I hear words like “selfish” and “coddled” thrown around during conversations about Millennials. It completely dismisses all of the hard work that many individuals put in to get to where they are.

    @jon – Thanks for reading. Having gone to a school with a pretty wealthy student body myself, I can completely attest to having the same experience. A lot of the kids who got those prized paid internships or those foot-in-the-door experiences didn’t necessarily get them out of merit. And wouldn’t you agree that most of the internships that are paid tend to be the ones in finance?

  • Rachel Happe -

    April 28, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Hi Alexa -

    While I agree with you conceptually and was in a very similar position during and after college – I gave up certain internships and jobs (I wanted to work on Capitol Hill but couldn’t afford to live off of $13k a year even with a second job) – it is unfortunately just not the way the world works. There will always be young men and women that can afford to not take a salary and because of that, there will always be organizations looking for free talent.

    Other than legislation which is unlikely, I don’t know that it is solvable. Nor is it a new problem – in D.C. I was uncompetitive for some unpaid internships because I didn’t have a Masters or Ph.D. degree if you can believe it.

    In my case I participated in a mix of things. I had some retail/waitressing/campus jobs, I did some shorter unpaid internships while working other jobs, I was lucky enough to have some paid internships, and I took a low paying job out of college that I had to supplement with a second job.

    My intention here is not to be cynical but just to throw a dose of reality into the conversation. The reality is that we don’t all have the same reserves growing up – and we don’t start careers at the same place. My grandparents were farmers and 2 of them didn’t have high school degrees. It took the hard work and persistence of a couple of generations to get me to where I am today. That has always been the American story of prosperity but it takes a while…and there are a lot of bumps along the way.

  • Willy -

    April 28, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Alexa, I agree with you completely that unpaid internships are unacceptable, however; I still think that students should have the right to work for free. There are situations in which an intern is not worth taking unless unpaid, but for the most part any real business that takes on interns should pay at least minimum wage. My Dad is an architect and his professional organization (the AIA) requires that all members pay interns, but he always says, “if you can’t make more than 10 bucks an hour off of an intern, then you shouldn’t be in business.” I think that’s about right.

    I help a lot of college students find internships (paid and unpaid), but I’m not sure how to initiate change that will lead to more companies paying their interns. The laws are already pretty strict about unpaid internships, they’re just not enforce. I wrote an article about it here:

    http://www.onedayoneinternship.com/blog/are-unpaid-internships-illegal/

    The best answer is probably to create a business case showing that paid interns are of higher talent and perform better than unpaid interns. Is that true? I don’t know, but I’d bet it is.

  • Shawn -

    April 30, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Alexa,

    I agree wholeheartedly. If companies really want the best interns, and if they hope to convert those interns to successful employees who are willing to work diligently for them, they should show us, the members of Gen Y, that they actually understand how valuable our skill set is. Most people over 30 cannot even begin to fathom how in-depth and dynamic our experience is in interpersonal communication and new media processes.

    Great post! Let’s hope it actually awakens people into realizing that the best way to insure company growth is to reinvest in your people.

  • Jim Storer -

    May 1, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Alexa – Thanks for a thoughtful post. Forgive me… I’m catching up in Reader after being largely “off the grid” for a couple weeks in Japan.

    I’ve hired a lot of college interns over the years and always felt the right thing to do was pay them a “living wage” (often $10-12/hour). I wasn’t really seeing this as leveling the playing field between the haves and have nots, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

    Just because you CAN in business, doesn’t always mean you SHOULD. Whether it’s not paying interns or squeezing vendors in tough times, I don’t think it’s the best way to build a healthy company (or society). While I’m as much a capitalist as the next guy, I want my team and partners to feel good about working for/doing business with me. If paying interns a small stipend to buy beers over the weekend gives them the flexibility to not take on another job, that’s good for me and my company.

    With that said, I agree with Rachel in that most medium/large companies don’t take this approach. It’s their choice and if an applicant doesn’t want to play that game (or have the wherewithal to), I don’t think we should attempt to force change.

    We all make choices in our career and whether it’s suffering for a period of time to take the unpaid internship that’s going to open doors in the future or taking a job that offers the flexibility for you to pursue a personal passion on the side, it’s our choice. Have a career game plan and then do what it takes to get you there. Unpaid internships may be part of the journey depending on what you choose.

    Thanks again for throwing this out there for discussion. It got me thinking about decisions I’ve made it my career and how I want to grow my business moving forward. Both are top of mind these days.

    Jim | @jstorerj

  • Pauline -

    May 1, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Alexa -

    This is a well timed discussion as many organizations are looking at their summer internship programs. I agree that it is good business sense to pay an intern for their work in some way. I would agree with Jim and others that a nominal wage of 10-12 an hour depending on the Metro area is appropriate. Other ways to compensate might be to pay for the course the internship is providing credits to or to make an in kind donation to the alma mater the student is attending.

    I think the best way to think about it is… if this were my child, grandchild, nephew, god child etc. Would I pay them? If the answer is yes, than do it for everyone! You get what you PAY for in life.

    I graduated in an economic downturn when it was an achievement to gett a job with benefits. I feel for the class of 2009.

    Pauline
    @pbrannigan

  • Alexa -

    May 7, 2009 at 4:54 am

    I love all the feedback in this post! When I wrote it, I was hoping that it would provoke a lot of this type of feedback. I’m finding that people are really passionate about talking about jobs, money, and careers these days (surprise, surprise) and what I’m trying to bring to the forefront are the implications that this has on the next generation of workers down the road.

    Rachel, Jim, and Willy – Completely understand that change isn’t easy and that the world is the way it is. People will always have competitive advantages over others. It’s my hope that we can be a bit more proactive in leveling the playing field by setting some standards when it comes to worker compensation at the student level. I think that the more conscious we are as a society, the more companies will be inclined to adjust their attitudes/policies.

    Shawn – You touched on something that I think is the core of what will resonate most with businesses – talent management. If companies can identify talent within an intern and convert them to an employee, it’s a long-term win.

    Pauline – “If this were my child…” I love that phrase because I think companies need to realize that the professional world should no longer function based on *their* needs. As gen-y matures in the workplace, we’ll essentially adopt the value systems that we’ve been taught. All businesses need to do today is ask themselves if they’re managing Millennials in the same way they want us to manage their grandkids.

  • Thom -

    May 8, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    You don’t even mention the newest phenomenon of students paying for the priviledge of having an internship. I always had to work in school and had to turn down several unpaid internship opportunities because I would have had no way to make rent or eat. If a company is going to offer an internship that is meaningful to both the company and the intern – i.e. the intern will be doing actual work – then that internship should be paid at least minimum wage if not more.

    More on the pay-for-internship @ http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2009/01/28/should-you-pay-for-your-kids-job-internship/

  • John Cass -

    May 11, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Hi Alexa,
    I would like to clarify something, I did not state “sometimes you don’t have to pay for interns, gen y will throw themselves at you.” I was attending an event in West Point Nebraska, and Caleb Pollard was speaking. Caleb said that, would you please update your post to reflect that?
    Again to follow up on our conversation at the Puma event.
    When I first came to the US from the UK in 1992, I was very surprised that people would work for free doing internships. A concept unknown I think in the UK at the time. Over time I began to see the value to both employers and interns for this sort of non-financial relationship.
    I’ve also hired several interns at several previous companies. Backbone Media, and 48hourprint.com. Not only did those non-paid interns get to do some great work. Two of my interns at backbone Media were involved in two major blogging studies and were credited on the studies, but both eventually were hired by my company. Another intern, a person in their 40’s, was getting back into the marketing workforce, and the experience at 48hourprint.com helped them get up to speed with the current state of internet marketing. They eventually got a job at 48hourprint.com and they have gone onto a successful career as a director of marketing.
    I think internships give small companies a chance to get to know people, and interns the opportunity to do the same as well as get some great experience.
    I do agree with you that my preference would be to pay people, but if you don’t have the budget to do that, and there are people who would genuinely gain value from the experience I think it is a good strategy to follow.

  • John Cass -

    May 11, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Hi Alexa,
    I would like to clarify something, I did not state “sometimes you don’t have to pay for interns, gen y will throw themselves at you.” I was attending an event in West Point Nebraska, and Caleb Pollard was speaking. Caleb said that, would you please update your post to reflect that?

    Again to follow up on our conversation at the Puma event.

    When I first came to the US from the UK in 1992, I was very surprised that people would work for free doing internships. A concept unknown I think in the UK at the time. Over time I began to see the value to both employers and interns for this sort of non-financial relationship.

    I’ve also hired several interns at several previous companies. Backbone Media, and 48hourprint.com. Not only did those non-paid interns get to do some great work. Two of my interns at backbone Media were involved in two major blogging studies and were credited on the studies, but both eventually were hired by my company. Another intern, a person in their 40’s, was getting back into the marketing workforce, and the experience at 48hourprint.com helped them get up to speed with the current state of internet marketing. They eventually got a job at 48hourprint.com and they have gone onto a successful career as a director of marketing.

    I think internships give small companies a chance to get to know people, and interns the opportunity to do the same as well as get some great experience.

    I do agree with you that my preference would be to pay people, but if you don’t have the budget to do that, and there are people who would genuinely gain value from the experience I think it is a good strategy to follow.

  • Ashley -

    June 19, 2009 at 1:34 am

    Nowadays, it is so hard to find a decent job after graduation even internship because there are some got unpaid. And due to the crisis right now, I found out about bloodbanker.com which they have all the information all of the Blood center in the United States where you can get paid $50/hour to donate blood!. This is really helpful even if it’s just a part time job and the bottom line of this is to save lives. As we all know, Blood bank shortages kill tons of people all the time and it is time to spread the word about blood donation and give blood, you will never know when You might need blood.

    By the way do you have a twitter or facebook account so that I can folow you.. I found your topic interesting.. thanks

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