Is It Immoral to Pay for Unpaid Internships?

Unpaid interns: They're destroying America. This seething horde of wage-depressing, union-killing collegiates and ex-collegiates are, some argue, worse than illegal immigrants, because instead of doing the jobs nobody wants to do, college interns do the jobs that everybody their age wants to do, but that only the wealthier can afford.

So goes the argument. I, former unpaid intern, don't buy it.

I loved my internships, but I vividly remember the stress of writing meticulous cover letters, repackaging resumes and feeling jittery about phone calls in early May. So I was intrigued to read this article about how more students are paying companies to hook them up with (often unpaid) internship gigs.

Here's Gerry Shih explaining what these internship middlemen do, often charge between $5,000-$10,000 (the Times promises that Gerry is a paid intern):

The money goes to the University of Dreams and the other middlemen like it. Officials at the company say they are able to wrangle hard-to-get internships for their clients because they have developed extensive working relationships with a variety of employers. They also have an aggressive staff who know who to call where. Their network of contacts, they say, is often as crucial as hard work in professional advancement.

Some people argue that unpaid internships already distort the job market and unfairly advantage students whose families are rich enough to support them for a summer without pay. I imagine those critics being a bit miffed by the emergence of super-expensive middleman programs, whose unaffordability already prices them out of the range of most families, which would seem to heap yet another advantage on affluent college students.

But of course, University of Dreams and organizations like it are just responding to an overwhelming market demand for internships to spiffy up resumes. Moreover, it seems to me that they're merely excelling at a role that should be well-honed by university career services. The article quotes a Stanford professor calls the trend "frightening." But you'd only choose to pay for an expensive internship placement program if you didn't trust your school's office to perform the same job as well, for free.


I'm sympathetic to the argument that unpaid internships distort the labor market and privilege the affluent. But the emergence of private sector internship service companies is only the latest evidence that many colleges' career services aren't taking internships seriously enough -- or that many students don't consider their career services sufficient middlemen for internships. That's not the fault of University of Dreams, and it's not the fault of rich parents. It's the fault of colleges -- many of which still don't offer college accreditation for internships, which would really help lower-income students save money.

Unpaid internships aren't going to disappear. And neither will programs like University of Dreams. If colleges object to either of those things, then it's up to them to get serious about preparing students for internships, building relationships with relevant companies and offering college credit and stipends to encourage all students to start building their careers early.