5 Reasons to Turn Down an Unpaid Internship

March 07, 2014

Written By: Tegan O'Neill

5Reasons With one hand gripping a Cup-O-Noodles and the other scrolling through job postings, I feel like an embodiment of the senior-in-college experience. We arrive on campus as freshmen, excited to broaden our horizons, learn, and, of course, become a gainfully employed graduate someday. As graduation approaches, however, many of us find ourselves scrambling to enter industries in which we are told the only way to get your “foot in the door” is by working for free. What we find in our late night, Ramen-fueled job searches often looks like this posting on the Wildcat Careers website:

“If you are up for a fun challenge and looking for the invaluable experience of a real start up company, apply now! Salary: Unpaid.”

Many employers who offer unpaid internships are able to pass off “experience” as a fair exchange for an intern’s work, and manage to convince jobseekers that this is really the only way to find work that pays. Unpaid internships are often successfully billed as prestigious or competitive, adding a degree of legitimacy to their claim that the experience is worth working for free.

The problem is that, in many cases, this is not true. While the value of an unpaid work experience is debatable, the value of human time and labor is not. Work is always worth something, especially if it is work that a paid employee would otherwise be doing. If the experience that you receive in exchange for your labor is largely coffee-making and errand-running, it is hard to argue that this is fair payment for your services. Sure, an unpaid internship may give you access to an industry that is difficult to enter, but if that access doesn’t result in new skills, and valuable experiences, what are you really getting out of it?

The unpaid internship is the product of a new and unsustainable norm that takes advantage of a difficult economy and a competitive job market. Some students can afford to take unpaid internships at big-name firms, but others are left wondering how to start their careers while supporting themselves. Those who can afford to choose an unpaid internship contribute to the illusion that not paying for work is an acceptable business practice, that students should be competing to work for free, and that these positions should be celebrated. This illusion is damaging, not only for those who don't have the means to take part, but for all young jobseekers.

Here are five reasons not to take that unpaid internship:

1. Fair Labor Standards

Unpaid internships that are exploitative violate the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Act requires profit-making companies to pay everybody who works for them, whether that is in an official or unofficial capacity. Some internships are exempt, but only if they are purely educational, and don’t directly benefit the employer. If your unpaid internship provides free services for an employer that would otherwise have been done by a paid employee, there’s a problem.

2. The Job Offer Myth

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2013 Student Survey, 63.1% of paid interns received at least one job offer. This compares to only 37% of unpaid interns getting a job offer.

graph showing the percentage of interns receiving at least one job offer

3. An Uneven Playing Field

Unpaid internships create an uneven playing field for those who can’t afford to work for free. Taking an unpaid internship, even if you can afford to do so, helps reinforce and perpetuate a practice that excludes the many recent graduates who have to support themselves. Further, unpaid internships may contribute to gender inequality in the workplace: a recent study found that three in four unpaid interns are women.

4. You Already Know How to Make Coffee

Many unpaid internships are marketed as educational experiences, and opportunities for training. Those that are genuinely educational certainly have value. However, many unpaid interns report that the tasks they were actually asked to carry out were menial, and did not contribute tot heir professional development. The New York Times published this account of a recent college graduate working in an unpaid internship in New York: “I took an unpaid internship that I figured would give me experience and help me land somewhere in six months. Instead I’m picking up coffee and dry cleaning and performing other tasks that the company would otherwise have to pay someone for. “ -Ariel Kaminer, New York Times. March 2012 If you are considering an unpaid internship, ask specific questions about the day-to-day tasks that the job really requires. Do they benefit your employer more than they benefit you?

5. Challenge the "New Norm"

Unpaid internships are only possible because of a widely held assumption that young peoples’ work is not valuable because it is not backed by years of experience. This belief is so pervasive that it affects how we see ourselves, and the opportunities that we believe we are qualified or valuable enough to dare to pursue. Some have proposed that unpaid internships are the “new norm” for college graduates looking for jobs in a tough economy with a lot of competition. Working for free doesn’t have to be the new norm. Recent graduates are new to their fields, and as a result are uniquely capable of innovation, leveraging new technologies and bringing fresh perspective and enthusiasm to their industries. By changing the dialogue between employers and young jobseekers, we can ensure that young people understand the value of their labor. Students and graduates can start changing this “norm” by pursuing opportunities that pay, whether that means a paycheck or meaningful education and training.

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