The Problem with Unpaid Internships

unpaid internships
Joanie Connell
Joanie Connell, Ph.D., is an organizational consultant and career coach at Flexible Work Solutions. She is also the author of "Flying without a Helicopter: How to Prepare Young People for Work and Life."
Joanie Connell


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Joanie Connell
Joanie Connell
Joanie Connell

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Are Unpaid Internships Providing The Right Kind of Experience?

I had an intern recently call me to tell me she couldn’t teach her portion of a class she had taken on because she had too much schoolwork. I saw it as a failure to follow through on a commitment. She saw it as a missed opportunity for an experience.

The question becomes, what kind of experience was she hoping to gain? Did she want to learn what it’s like to teach a class? If so, the most fundamental lesson is to show up. On-time and prepared are the second two lessons. You can be a great executive trainer, but if you miss any of these three pieces, you are likely to get fired.

Students clamber for unpaid work opportunities (“internships”) to gain experience, yet they don’t seem to want to work when they get there. They are only interested in the fun and exciting tasks; they don’t want to engage in basic, tedious ones. It’s not educational in their minds.

But they are missing the point entirely. Tedious work is educational. In fact, it’s the most realistic experience an intern can have. Work is work. It’s not fun and exciting. Much of the time, work is tedious and boring. It’s why we get paid to do it. Taking on an unpaid internship to indulge in fun and education doesn’t prepare someone for a job. In fact, it does just the opposite. It sets up false expectations of work.

Students have made such uproar over getting “used” by corporations to work for free that the U.S. Department of Labor added new language to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to protect them. Currently, unpaid internships in the U.S. are legally required to be “for the benefit of the intern,” not the employer.

In contrast, paid work is for the benefit of the employer, subject to many employment laws. Thus it is important to understand that unpaid interns are not necessarily learning what it means to work. And that’s exactly the problem. Instead of requiring companies to create exciting showcases of jobs for students to get unpaid experiences, it might be more useful to go back to paying students to get real on-the-job experience—a win-win.

But would students want this kind of experience? After all, many students don’t take paid jobs precisely because they don’t think it is the kind of experience that will land them a professional job upon graduation. They feel pressure from companies to have job-relevant experience on their resumes and they feel the only way they can get it is to take unpaid internships.

On the other hand, companies feel pressure from students to have educational experiences and they don’t want to have to pay interns for that. The government says you can’t have students work for free if the experience is not for them. I think we’re getting tangled in the definition of what job relevant experience really is and whether it is educational.

Working at a drug store is job relevant experience for an executive trainer: you have to show up on time and be prepared to work. If I see a year of part-time work at a drug store on someone’s resume, I know they have had to demonstrate responsible, reliable, customer-service oriented behavior. Whereas participating in a 3-week showcase of attention-grabbing events demonstrates that the person has seen some great stuff. It does not give me a sense of their work ethic or abilities. Both, however, are educational to a student.

In the case of my unpaid intern, I had put significant time and effort into training her and finding opportunities for her to gain experience doing frontline work, such as teaching executives. I considered this my part of the deal. It would have been quicker and easier for me to do the work myself, but I wanted to give her opportunities. I structured the class to have breakout groups where interns could moderate. When the intern called to cancel with a day to spare, I had to scramble to figure out how to cover the class with one less moderator.

Did my intern learn anything from this unpaid educational experience? I certainly did. Whether or not interns need to get paid, they definitely need to learn the basics if they want to succeed in the workplace.

  • While your article has some good points, I disagree with your opinion that tedious work should take precedent over relevant experience for interns. There should be a combination of both. I worked in higher education for years, provided opportunities for interns to gain hands on practical experience in applying what they learned in the classroom in a real world, fully-functioning work environment. I have seen accounting majors end up filing rooms covering a company’s backlog of correspondence, running personal errands for the boss’ family, or other tasks not even remotely related to the work they will do as accountants. Some companies see interns as free labor to perform mundane tasks that do not lead to relevant job training. As far as showing up on time, keeping commitments, those should be taught way before the students reaches intern status. Did that student show up in class, on time, ready to work? Did s/he turn in completed assignments on time? Did s/he volunteer for opportunities outside of class? These are good indicators of work ethic and provide insight to how a student might perform at the internship.

  • I completely agree that employers shouldn’t use interns as personal slaves. Tedious work does not imply irrelevant work. Tedious work can mean checking the citations in a legal brief or news article to make sure they are accurate, cleaning up after a sales event, and making what seems like endless calls to customers to ensure their satisfaction. All those tasks can be very important to learn. At the same time, having a job that is not necessarily in a career path can also be very educational. Learning how to be a reliable employee who dresses and acts appropriately is key to just about any job. It is stunning how many people lack these skills when they embark on their careers because they have never learned them earlier. I agree that they should learn them earlier and I advise kids to get jobs in high school to prepare them for work later, even if they don’t need the cash.