We have to talk about unpaid internships

Once upon a time, entry-level jobs were just so: entry-level. You could get a degree and pay for it within 10 years of graduating. Nowadays, you are likely to have tens of thousands in student loans, and will probably graduate into a job market that leaves you wondering how to get experience if no one will give you any. Times have changed and there's this really ugly tradition that is exacerbating the situation: the unpaid internship.

As a person who believes in the importance of creating situations where everyone wins, unpaid internships are appalling. They are inherently exploitative, they are rarely beneficial for the intern, and they stunt the talent pool for companies and entire industries. But if you've not really been a part of unpaid internship culture, or not really examined it, you might not even realize these things. If you're a kid coming up into your adulthood and preparing for your career, you might not even realize you have other options. If you're an school administrator, or an employer, you might not realize how harmful unpaid internships are to the interns and to you. So I'm breaking it down for you, (and I'm going more in depth than the original twitter thread I wrote about this).

What internships should be

The concept of an internship is not at all the problem. Internships provide a whole host of opportunities and benefits, many of which I experienced myself as an intern. Internships are an opportunity to test-drive a job and learn things outside a classroom and in the real world. They're where you can try things out that you might not be able to commit to for 1-2 years when you've graduated, but can definitely commit to for 3-6 months. You can learn about specific companies, or roles, or industries in a way you simply can't (or would have a really hard time doing) in class. Internships should be educational. They should provide you with exploratory opportunities. I've even had paid internships where the company also set up sessions and lunch and learns for all the interns to see different parts of the company and learn about different roles and facets of the industry. Internships should provide you with the opportunity to not only experiment, but to contribute something of value. You should be working, not necessarily at the level of a full-time employee, but in ways that are relevant to the career you are exploring.

That is one of the most obvious reasons why you should be paid. If you are doing the work of a paid employee-- not all of their role, but some parts of it-- you should be getting paid. In my work history, that meant doing things like data collection and entry, copy writing, deck building, and research. These were all projects that a paid person on my team would do if I didn't do them, or conceivably could be assigned to do if they had the bandwidth. Interns are supposed to help teams do a little more and in exchange get paid, just like any other worker.

The problems with not getting paid

As you can imagine, there are a ton of problems with not getting paid for your work. The most obvious and immediate being that unpaid people can't pay for things. Being alive costs money. Paying for transportation and food are critical expenses for anyone, and they don't go on hold because you've got an unpaid internship.  Some kids may find that in order to pursue their careers, they have the best opportunities in both quantity and quality in faraway cities, which could mean additional costs compared to those living at home in the form of rent and moving costs. This adds up to a lot of money that a lot of intelligent, capable young people realize they can't afford to part with. You can talk all you want about the importance of learning to "invest in yourself" but with many students taking on so much in debt to pay for their education, it's a completely rational choice to sit-out so-called unpaid internship "opportunities."

And that leads to an even bigger problem: financial and class-based barriers to opportunity. It's easy to understand why any employer would prefer to hire a recent grad with a couple relevant (or even impressive!) internships under their belt as opposed to a kid with none when they are both competing for the same entry-level role. Everyone is looking to hire the most qualified, most competent candidate. But you have to look beyond "what are people bringing to the table?" to consider "who has been uninvited from the table?" While weighing qualifications is a big portion of the talent selection process, we also have to consider what the lack of qualifications or experience really means. The easy answer is that a lack of experience means that someone is unfit or unmotivated, but the best answers are rarely the easy ones. If we consider the prevalence of unpaid internships as a whole, with them being commonplace across industries and the standard in too many, the best answer as to why a fresh young graduate might lack experience when applying for an entry-level job probably has a lot to do with the fact that they likely couldn't afford to get any. Those who have experiences that are unpaid are those who could afford not to be paid, which means you're really only giving opportunities to well-to-do kids. I don't think that students from privileged backgrounds are the only ones who bring innovation, dedication, and brilliance to the table, so why would you want to keep them out of your companies (and sometimes by extension, whole industries)? Unpaid internships do not encourage young talent to "bootstrap"-- they tell young people with nothing but brains and bootstraps that your company or industry does not value their time and effort the way a paying job at a restaurant or store does.

There are students who do whatever it takes to keep up. They'll live in an apartment with three people to a bedroom and eat peanut butter sandwiches and ramen all summer. They'll wake up an hour earlier to walk to work, not because they were able to afford living somewhere close to the office and they like a good stroll but because they couldn't afford a car to drive from their place. I'm not denying they exist. I'm just saying that it shouldn't be so hard for these people to make the decision to intern somewhere and further their career instead of staying home and helping out their parents or getting a job at the local movie theater for the summer. If a kid who is smart and creative and hard working wants to work for you and contribute to your business, why would you make waiting tables seem like a more sensible option? And what student facing loans would rather do unpaid work instead of making a dent in their debt? Who wins?

Financial barriers affect some groups more than others. Students from underprivileged backgrounds, immigrants and children of immigrants, the poor, those living outside major metropolitan areas, people of color, and women. If your industry is having issues with diversity, and is struggling to find ways to help improve the diversity of the talent pool, consider doing away with unpaid internships and advocating against them in your industry. You suddenly take away a huge disparity between the rich kid with several internships and the kid who is just as smart who couldn't afford to burn through money without making any those summers, and give them a better shot.

Legally there are also ramifications. As mentioned before, if an intern is doing real work at a company, by law they must be compensated-- you can't have it both ways where you make money (in one way or another) from their contributions without paying them. This is an easy to understand concept. In addition to that though, giving interns paid roles helps ensure certain protections for them as employees. As reported in 2015, a shocking number of states don't protect unpaid interns from discrimination or sexual harassment. If a person is not being paid, they don't technically qualify as "employees" who are covered in federal or state workplace laws. Unpaid interns often can't report things like sexual harassment because they aren't protected from retaliation.

Unpaid conditions make for an inherently exploitative relationship between the employer and the not-legally-recognized "employee." 

And before you call unpaid internships worthwhile in the long-run, consider that a 2016 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that paid interns are almost 30% more likely to get an offer compared to their unpaid peers and across industries, the gap between how much paid interns are offered as starting salaries versus unpaid interns is staggering. Most surprising of all, on average, those who took unpaid internships were offered less to start than those with no internship experience whatsoever. While starting salaries are far from the be-all-end-all of one's income potential, they do set the standard against which raises are doled out, and can set a person's expectation and evaluation of what they are worth as an employee. Because of this, a large disparity in starting salary can significantly hinder someone's ability to close the gap between their salary and that of a peer who started higher up the pay scale despite having the same role.

College credit isn't really compensation

Many prospective interns are aware that some employers can't pay in money, but they can compensate in "educational credits." Educational credits, however, do not pay the bills. Moreover, college credit is a tricky thing to obtain. It requires that the employer meet the educational institution's standards to qualify as an educational experience worthy of credit. This can mean that students will have to complete additional projects as educational exercises, or that supervisors have the power to grade interns, or even, in some cases, that the institution can charge a student for those credits. That's right, it might mean that a student pays for a job. (Some of my peers did this and it absolutely boggles my mind.)

If you've ever had a bad boss (and I think everyone has), you know that even at great companies or while doing work you love, a bad boss can ruin everything. Now, imagine that you have no protections against your boss harassing, bullying, or discriminating against you. Now imagine that this person who is not a trained educator can grade you. Now imagine you are concerned about your GPA being in this person's hands, and not only are you worried about your GPA as it appears on your resume for the next year or so-- you are concerned about keeping your scholarships so you can actually graduate. Imagine that. That's the reality for far too many kids.

Some universities are engaging in misguided attempts to give students real-life experience by requiring internships in order for students to graduate. These employers are not beholden to legal protections for employees nor bound by the authority of the educational institutions and as a result, the quality of these internships isn't paid much attention or enforced, with many students unable to risk their ability to graduate or find work in tight-knit industries by reporting bad experiences. It is imperative in my opinion that schools stop requiring internships. I believe paid internships should be encouraged and facilitated by the educational institutions as much as possible, but requiring internships forces many students to take unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships aren't your only option

As previously mentioned, you might think that an unpaid internship is your only option, either because they are the standard in your industry, or because you haven't been able to land a paid internship. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do instead of an unpaid internship that will further your career.

Make stuff. Whether you want to write for TV or work in fashion or build apps or websites, you can spend your summer just making stuff. If you're not going to get paid anyway, you might as well work for yourself. You might not be able to put an internship on your resume, but you can write about your project, add it to your portfolio, and talk about it in interviews down the line. Make stuff that you care about. It might cost you money, but you'll have the flexibility to work paid jobs on the side, and you'll still come out ahead, rather than having spent at least an equivalent amount of money making it work for someone who won't pay you.

Learn a new skill and/or get certified. This might also take a little investment, but it's more tangible than an unpaid internship. Brush up on that foreign language you took in high school and become fluent. Get certified in a coding language or CPR or design program. Or get that driver's license you have been putting off. Or even just learn how to cook and shop well for groceries-- maybe that's not something you can put on your resume, but it's a life skill that will pay off in savings from all those meals out and spoiled produce you've learned to circumvent. Read books about self-improvement or productivity. Be a better (and more employable) you.

Job-shadow. Observerships are great because they're basically everything unpaid internships want to be but generally fail at. They typically don't last very long-- sometimes a few days up to a few weeks. This means that you don't spend your entire summer doing something you're not paid for and aren't contributing to (remember, those things are legally dependent on each other). You just shadow someone at their job, going through their day with them, and they take some extra time to explain what they're doing, why, and answer your questions. You're not expected to "do" anything, and you don't get paid, but you also get to learn what a job is like from someone who has it. Observerships are also a lot less commitment on the part of the shadowee since they don't have to take you on for months.

Do informational interviews. Learn about other jobs and companies by doing shorter interviews. You can do these in person or over the phone or video chat. While they aren't as hands-on as other methods, this can be a really efficient way to learn about many companies while also familiarizing them with you. It's a conversation, a two-way street, and it's great for making connections while also learning.

Volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to do hands-on work with much more fair terms than an unpaid intern. While you're still not getting paid, volunteers work on a voluntary basis. While you may decide to commit to coming in from 9-to-5 to help with accounting or planning, you're still there on a voluntary basis and won't have to worry about poor references if something comes up and you need to adjust. The stakes are lower because while you are helping out, you're not obligated to be there. You can learn and prove tons of transferrable skills like communication, team leadership, event planning, web design, and language skills while also working with an organization you care about. It could be a shelter or food bank or library or museum. Health organizations, political organizations, research organizations-- whatever your passion. Someone can use your skills in a way you can put on your resume, with much better conditions than what an unpaid internship might provide.

You can help fight unpaid internships

So now you know all about why I'm against unpaid internships and what some other options are. But now you might wonder how you can stop unpaid internships from being so prevalent. Here are ways you can help.

Don't take unpaid internships. This is an easy choice for those who can't feasibly do it, so this is really a request for those who can. Don't take an unpaid internship even if you can afford it. We need this entire economy to collapse. Unpaid internships cannot exist if there are no unpaid interns. Do some of the other stuff above instead. I know it can be hard, especially when it seems like unpaid internships are the only options out there, but ask yourself if you really want to contribute to a system that makes it hard for people starting out in their career to be a part of it and survive.

Don't make unpaid internships. If you are an employer, or even an employee at a company considering unpaid interns, fight against having unpaid interns. Interns should be paid for their work because people should be paid for their work. Pay your interns or don't have interns.

Advocate against unpaid internships in your industry. Speak out against unpaid internships. There are much better ways to scout talent early and improve the talent pool. Talk about how they cripple diversity and innovation. Talk about how they are unfair and dangerous to the well-being of the young people. If your alma mater has an internship requirement, talk to professors and administrators about why you are against them. Not to be all "children are the future" about this, but literally, the students of today will be the change-makers of tomorrow. It is absurd to ask students who have little to "invest in themselves" for the industry's benefit when the industry should be investing in them.

Open up your doors. As an employer you can scout and encourage talent in many ways, and most of them involve opening your doors. Take calls from students cold emailing you to learning more about what you do. Do panels or office tours for students. Present case studies at local universities. Hold information sessions. You don't have to be an amazing guide to the world of your work. You just have to be open to helping a couple kids figure some stuff out.

You don't have to agree

I don't pretend to be an expert in all industries. I don't pretend to know about your experiences with unpaid internships. But I do know what I know. I know that I have had internships that I loved and learned from, and internships that I hated and learned from. All of them were paid, and I could do them only because I was paid. The things those internships taught me about the work, and about what I need to succeed as an employee, have made me better at my ("real") job. If I hadn't been able to do those internships paid, I would not have been able to do them at all, and that would have made me poorer-equipped professional.

I do not know a single person who got a job offer through an unpaid internship. I do not know a single person who had an amazing unpaid internship experience. I have heard far too many unpaid intern horror stories. I know students and alumni who helped their school or program abolish internship requirements after having their own terrible unpaid internship experiences ranging from not-really-educational to abusive. I know in some industries, unpaid internships are standard. These industries typically have diversity problems. I know that even on my worst days at my least favorite internship, I still did my best and I still got paid so at least I didn't have to worry about how I was going to afford a dinner (over which to cry).

Sometimes a job is just a job, but what is it if you aren't even getting paid? When people aren't compensated or protected, when fantastic talent is abandoning the industry due to barriers to entry, when you are likely to get offered less to start than someone with no internship experience, who really wins?

Thanks for reading, and I hope I've at least made you think about this issue that affects tons of young people today.


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