In Defense of Unpaid Internships

The economics of unpaid internships are as clear as the ethics are muddy. Employers want cheap workers, especially with the economy weak, and it doesn't get any cheaper than free. Students and recent graduates want experience and work at any price, and they're willing to settle for zero.

Yesterday, I asked you to tell me your experiences and opinions about unpaid internships. Hundreds of you responded. Here is the first batch of answers -- against unpaid internships. And here is the second batch - in defense of working for free.


Unpaid internships are a great thing. Too bad too many people are putting pressure on companies to end them.

Internships were once called apprenticeships. They allowed (mostly) young men to spend time learning a trade by paying the company with a time of free labor. It was a winner because after the apprenticeship men could look forward to a lifetime of higher pay by becoming a skilled tradesman.

Unfortunately the nanny state needs to end that. The horror of teaching people a trade while not paying a mandated minimum wage is considered so 17th century to today's more enlightened beings. Horror of horrors, people could learn skills to last a lifetime without going through a federally mandated re-education training program. Can't allow that to happen. - Buckland

Unpaid internships: Better for students than paid-for college?

If I had 100,000 dollars of grants and loans and cash to do all over again, I might just pay to intern for four years. The liberal arts degree has to be exposed as a fraud. If I told an industry leader, "I'll support myself for four years to be truly an apprentice", that seems infinitely more valuable than a traditional four year college experience, if the goal is ultimately about job placement. I have a library card. I can read and research at will without a term paper as incentive. - Robert Wohner

'What's the matter with free training?

I agree that making an unpaid internship a de-facto requirement to even be considered for employment is dead wrong. It amounts to a "free trial period" for the company/organization.

But there has to be an appropriate middle ground that recognizes the value that an employer provides to the intern through training without turning it into an exploitative situation. I simply don't believe that any and all unpaid internships are, by definition, exploitative. Why should an employer - who may not even be your future employer - have to train you for free? - R_Alexander

The harsh reality: Unpaid internships are messy, useful, necessary

As an undergrad at a state school, I worked every summer because my parents couldn't afford to pay for my living expenses. I also worked during the school year at my university's library. Recognizing how important an internship was, I arranged my schedule to be able to intern for 9 months at a consulting firm for 15hrs a week during my Sr. year. The internship was unpaid, but the experience was invaluable. I got to see first hand how corporate America works. While I did things like write briefs, prepare excel files, and make presentations (all stuff I knew how to do), I learned how to do those things in a professional setting.

That internship greatly helped me get into graduate school, thanks to a great letter of recommendation. It also helped me land a graduate assistant position that has paid for all of my schooling. Finally, it helped me land a high paying job at a major consulting firm. So I greatly appreciate my unpaid internship, even though it required a lot of sacrifice (I had to work weekends and drop out of student government).

I do however recognize the challenges that unpaid positions place on students from lower income families. I applaud efforts by schools to provide funding. My graduate program had a fund to pay for half of an internship, if the employer would pay the other half. Unfortunately, not enough of these programs exist.

The area that has the biggest problem with unpaid internships is the nonprofit sector. In DC, every organization is basically run by unpaid interns, and they get to do this because they are nonprofits. If you want to work for a nonprofit, you have to have multiple internships. What is sad is that these nonprofits really don't have the money to pay people, which makes the nonprofit/think tank/capitol hill world nearly off limits to those without outside support. - Holland Avery

In defense of my unpaid internship

I did an unpaid internship with a Fortune 200 (actually it may have been in the top 100 at that time) company quite some time back. It was only a part time engagement, maybe 10-12 hours per week for a semester if I recall correctly. I didn't mind it being unpaid, really, for a couple of reasons:

1) It gave me the opportunity to put some relevant work experience on my resume at a time when I needed it, and to also secure a good reference. 2) I did get the opportunity to learn/train on some resources that my school did not have available, broadening my skill set. This was done in a way that also ended up with my delivering some work of value to the company. Again, things I could list on my resume, and needed to do so. I took an active initiative in shaping my internship into a positive and valuable learning experience. I knew what I wanted to get out of it and I asserted myself to make sure that I got it. I can imagine that a student that didn't do so and just expected this to be done for them could end up being disappointed and even misused. It really is quite challenging to design an internship experience that is not going to end up being a waste of time for both the student and the employer. If there isn't going to be any cash in it for the student, then there really should be something else of value that they can expect to get out of it. If there isn't that either, then these things really are not worth doing. - stefanstackhouse

'An unfortunate economic reality'

Taking unpaid internships has become an unfortunate economic reality. Bluntly, why should a firm spend money taking on an over-entitled and technically untrained college student when another is willing to work for free?  If a hungry student from China/India is willing to outwork me for free, and with a smile on their face, shame on me. We're in an economic recession, remember?

Fortunately, an unpaid position isn't necessarily the "slave labor" that this article makes it out to be.  If the position you're interning for is a career and not a job, you shouldn't really be interning for wages, but rather, experience. Indeed, what I've found most valuable from my past internships have been the networking opportunities, enhanced technical expertise and credibility, and more importantly, knowing whether this is something I'm really cut out for. I value that more than cash right now.

The problem, therefore, is not so much that no wage is being distributed, but that most students have no clue why they are even interning in the first place. As with all big decisions (marriage, college, children), I think we need to stress the importance of considering why we do the things we do, work included.

How about this- in exchange for charging exorbitant tuition fees, why don't colleges briefly explain to their students why internships are important? How about colleges explain what a student should hope to get out of their experience, and whether they should be even doing these internships in the first place? Now THAT is something that is worth paying for.

Disclaimer: Currently working in the financial services industry, multiple unpaid internships, everything financed through scholarships and part-time jobs, everything learned on the job. Glad I worked for free.


The unpaid internship is basically a deal where the employer pays the employee (or labor donor, as it were) not in cash, but in the form of value of exposure to the field of work and experience, which is a form of marketability to try and actually snag paid work in that field. With such a brutish labor market, especially for new college graduates, there is an immense demand to pay for such an opportunity. And of course, from the "employer's" POV, as anyone who has taken marketing and/or economics 1001 can attest to, there is no better price than FREE!

Unpaid internships offer 'value other than money'

Unpaid internships - are they forced labor? Huh? I thought they were voluntary. If a student is being exploited, exactly what is stopping him/her from leaving? If he/she doesn't leave the unpaid internship, then I would expect that there's value somewhere. I had several unpaid internships in the early 90s when I was getting ready to finish my BA - gave me something to put on my resume! Gave me some insight into how companies worked. Gave me insight into what I wanted to do and what I didn't.

There is value there other than money. Most Bachelor grads that I've met have NO IDEA how to work in a business environment, what professional behavior is. They are scared/hesitant to talk to people (need to learn to project confidence), and just plain green. If there are no paid jobs available (and they can afford not to work - there's the rub), then unpaid internships are a great stepping stone.

If students start suing because they are being 'exploited' then guess what - internships will stop. They will become too risky for companies to do. And guess what - college graduates will be getting Starbucks/retail jobs instead of business/professional jobs and it will become more difficult for them to get a start.

Now, it sounds like there are definitely abusers out there - companies that get a lot of work out of interns on an ongoing basis and use interns as a substitute for paid employees. That's not on.

But again, there still is such a thing as free will. I'd expect interns to punish these companies through social media, through websites reviewing internships, I'd expect they would be exposed and be forced to change practices. Anyone know if there are sites like this out there? Glassdoor or jobitorial equivalents? - Paula Cassin

'Paid in kind'

In my mind my internships weren't unpaid, they were paid in kind(work experience, references and connections). So, while I didn't get paid with US currency, I was given something much more valuable: evidence that I could deliver professional quality work using the knowledge and skills I was gaining from my degree program. I went into my first job (after receiving my degree) with two professional references in the field I had studied in.

The value of unpaid internships: Part I

I was an intern for a member of Congress while I was in college. I opened mail, answered phones, took tourists for visits in the Capitol, ran gopher errands to other offices. Eventually I started helping draft correspondence, research legislation, and help with more substantive work.

My internship was invaluable. I had an extremely flexible schedule and I had a chance to see the sausage being made as it were.

Internships in DC are almost a rite of passage, especially on the Hill.

The value of unpaid internships: Part II

I'm currently doing a (barely) paid internship for a think tank in D.C., and it's provided valuable insights into the way think tanks operate. I now know what to expect, have a great line on my resume, and am going to be employed full-time in an unrelated field. However, I will always have this under my belt, and it is a great talking point during interviews that shows the diversity of my ability (and contributes a name-brand institution to my resume).

The value of unpaid internships: Part III

I work for a nonprofit organization and we have a nearby university that has a nonprofit management grad program. My comments are industry specific.

The interns we get from this grad program DEMAND to be given substantial work. They are snippy when they don't have "enough" to do. They complain to their program directors when they aren't given entire projects to manage. They think they should be able to write grant proposals and plan events. We actually have to actively manage their expectations of the amount of responsibility they will have.

There are other nonprofits in town that are so strapped for resources they actually do depend on interns to manage projects, and those are the internships the interns claim they prefer - they actually snark about our organization because we are well-run enough that we don't "need" to do this. We actually have a "reputation" as having a bad internship program, because we hew closely to the supposed ideals of the Labor Dept (aka the law).

Also, I would point out that nonprofit orgs don't use interns to replace hypothetical paid employees. If we didn't have the interns, the work just wouldn't get done. Or, we would lean more on our volunteer corps to do it. But if there's no intern to answer phones at the front desk, the front desk goes unmanned. It's that simple.

Finally, I would add that a lot of students I have encountered in nonprofit management grad programs are there because they want a credential. Many of them have already worked in the nonprofit world and just think the master's degree will boost their job prospects. A strict "internship" where they are just observing me and getting under my feet is an utter waste of their time. They are sort of like the mid-career professional who is suing the producers of "Black Swan" because he thought all the coffee fetching he did was beneath him. (Which it was. He's 40, and he knows what it means to work for a paycheck.)


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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