The Problem with Unpaid Internships

unpaid internships

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.

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."
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