The Uselessness of Unpaid Internships

As unpaid internships seemingly go by the waysidesome argue that these positions provide marketable skills and training, which these young workers of America can't get elsewhere — but is that really true? Not really.

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As unpaid internships seemingly go by the waysidesome argue that these positions provide marketable skills and training, which these young workers of America can't get elsewhere — but is that really true? Not really. Many unpaid internships, while valuable to a company, are pretty useless for someone trying to learn actual career building skills and thus pretty useless to future potential employers. One of the Black Swan unpaid interns, for example, told The Atlantic Wire he spent much of his time staring at the wall. The former intern suing Atlantic Records did "various office tasks, such as answering telephones, making photocopies, making deliveries, preparing coffee, getting lunch for paid employees, and other similar duties," per the court filing. Those may be tasks that a big production company or record label needs to get done. But, nobody would argue that experience provided industry specific expertise — those interns could have learned to do that for pay as an office manager at any company. And not too surprisingly future employers don't value that kind of work.

Often, the only thing these free laborers get is a company name on their resume — but, turns out, that doesn't even help much when looking for jobs. That is, most unpaid internships don't lead to jobs — at least not for college students. According to a recent National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of 9,200 college seniors, those who had unpaid internships were about as likely to find a job as someone with no internship at all:

Intern Bridge found similar results in a 2012 survey of 11,000 college students, as The Atlantic's Jordan Weissman reports. "Their findings showed that college students were about twice as likely to receive a job offer at the conclusion of a paid internship than at the end of an unpaid internship," he writes. Rather, unpaid internships often lead to more unpaid internships, as chronicled in the Washingtonian

Of course, those findings might have something to do with the types of companies and industries that offer paid versus unpaid internships. Media, a field in which unpaid (and underpaid) internships abound doesn't have as many jobs to offer college students than say, finance or tech, where interns probably are paid more than you. Though, Weissman argues that's not the case, since unpaid interns across a variety of fields do worse than paid interns. He also rules out smarter kids taking paid intern opportunities, showing GPA does not correlate to positions with money attached.

Considering what unpaid internships often consist of — getting coffee, staring at a wall — these findings aren't that surprising. Why would a company hire an entry level employee whose only work experience amounts to taking lunch orders? It turns out they most of the time don't.

Not all unpaid internships amount to just that. The Wall Street Journal talked to a handful of students some of whom claim their unpaid internships provided valuable learning experiences. "With my unpaid internship, I had so much more freedom and if I couldn’t come in, it wasn’t a big deal," said Meredith Kenyon. "If there was nothing for me to do, they didn’t care if I left early. I learned a lot and had a great experience and it was an opportunity for me to actually learn without them really relying on me." Others mentioned the value of getting a "foot in the door."

But for most, swapping out these unpaid internships for paid ones will only benefit young aspiring workers. If an organization is shelling out money for someone's time, it will want meaningful work in return, which often turns into marketable skills. Some argue, however, that the end of unpaid internships could mean the end of internships altogether — sending more people to grad school (to accrue more debt) or to unemployment. That hasn't completely been the case so far, though: reform, at least at bigger companies, has come in the form of paid internships. Fox Searchlight (the Black Swan company) has started paying its interns, for example. As have a handful of other media organizations, like NBC News and Condé Nast.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.