Paid and Unpaid Internships: What Are You Worth, Interns?

Paid and unpaid internships have been around since the mid 1800s. Back in the day, however, the only such positions would be found in the medical field since it was the opinion that medical education could best be gleaned by experiential learning—these internships are now called “residencies” and these doctors actually do get paid. The 1930s are when the average internship we know and love (and sometimes love to hate) began to form; in 1938, the Fair Standards Labor Act was passed in the United States, laying out six irrefutable rules for what made an unpaid internship a legal practice:

  1. The internship must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The internship must be for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace regular, paid employees.
  4. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern.
  5. The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
  6. The intern understands that he or she is not entitled to wages.

Even with the establishment of these (now heavily debatable, depending on the internship in question) ground rules, the real boom of the unpaid internship didn’t come about until the 1970s–80s. At that time, there were two key shifts in the workforce:

  1. For the first time it seems that employers became truly aware of the benefits of contingent workers (temporary/part-time/unpaid employees). Not only were these employees more easily disposable, but they also didn’t require employers to provide benefits and it was nearly impossible for these workers to unionize.
  2. The move to the unpaid internship was coupled with the proliferation of HR departments that often became solely responsible for the hiring and firing of employees; something about having a specific branch of the company responsible for acquiring workers made it easier to find people willing to do menial work for little to no compensation.

Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t gotten better. In 1997, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that the percentage of college graduates with an internship was 17%. By 2008, that number had grown to 50%. Predictably, these numbers continued to grow after 2008 with the onslaught of the recession. The dramatic economic downturn led employers to hire more and more unpaid interns, and an increasing number of new grads and unemployed young professionals became even more likely to accept these positions. Before the recession, approximately one-third of internships were unpaid, as compared to now when a little over half of these jobs come without compensation (The Economist).

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Most unpaid jobs fall into the laps of college students and recent graduates. These individuals are most likely to be part of the unpaid workforce because they are newbies to the job market needing experience to start their resumes. As a result, there are a number of internship programs that offer college credit in place of financial compensation (though recently awareness has been growing about the fact that many unpaid interns eligible for “college credit” are not even enrolled in school and are receiving nothing for their work). According to Gina Neff, communications professor at the University of Washington, this offer of college credit is really a good deal for schools. “For universities, it’s really cheap money…They are getting tuition dollars and not having to spend instructional dollars.” (The Economist)

Though receiving college credit is better than nothing for the majority of university students, this “working for no pay” business has its own price. The majority of students in this country are unable to afford the astronomical prices of higher education and therefore require not only hefty loans but also need to work on the side to afford necessities (things like food, rent, and utilities). College credit in place of wages ultimately does not lessen college spending, but does consume irretrievable time that could be spent at even a minimum wage position to assist with the piling bills.

Unpaid internships also pose an enormous burden to recent graduates who no longer receive loans but now must pay them back. Where do employers who don’t pay their workers expect this money to come from? Perhaps it’s a matter of little consequence to said employers, but student loans and their associated interest rates add up to quite a sum of money, especially for a person working up to forty hours a week…and earning absolutely nothing.

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Over the past few decades, there has been relatively little stir over the continued exploitation of an unpaid workforce. However, the movement into the 21st century has inspired some interns to take a look at their jobs and question whether or not what they were doing was legal. In the case of Eric Glatt (former intern of Fox Searchlight during the production of Black Swan), it has been decided that no, in fact, the tasks he was assigned were the work of an entry-level professional, not the mindless coffee-fetching one often associates with internships of the past; “This culture of expecting to be able to get free labor if you slap the title ‘intern’ on it has become so pervasive that people don’t question whether it’s ethically wrong or legally acceptable.”

Glatt’s lawsuit is far from unique in its accusations against a former employer, but there is a great deal of hesitancy from interns about the prospect of coming forward with their experiences; often, the payouts from these cases (even in the case of a victory) are relatively small, and especially in the cases of denied claims, the intern loses marketability and risks ostracization from his or her desired field.

More often than not, interns of all income levels are expected to perform the tasks of full-time employees but are regarded as worthy of less or no compensation. Promises of college credit and job experience are empty; college credit costs interns both money and time, and dangling the carrot of “resume fodder” is ridiculous—an intern could put a given work experience on their resume just as easily if he or she were paid for their labor.

The takeaway message: potential interns must decide for themselves whether their time and skill is worthy of pay (note that if a company is willing to associate their name with your work, then it is certainly worth enough for said company to pay for said work). What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

*eNotes is an equal-opportunity employer. Writing as an intern for this company, I will verify that eNotes pays its interns a fair wage.