I recently received an email from a college student asking about the possibility of an internship, working in some capacity for me. The young man detailed a stellar academic record with an appropriate amount of modesty, and articulated his present career goals with clarity and candor. (He was aware that he might change his mind later, but right now he thinks he wants to be a writer. God help him.)
It was flattering to me, but also disconcerting as he mentioned that he was aware that many internship opportunities were unpaid, even those available at very large and very profitable companies. He was prepared for that possibility with me.
I responded, wishing him well, and offering to provide any academic or career advice he might seek as he continued his education and ventured out into the world. I’m sure he’ll be very successful in whatever endeavor he chooses to pursue.
I manage my work and life at present with a minimum of assistance (and assistants), and I have no need of an intern. Furthermore, I’m not sure what an intern could learn from me, other than to realize that writing is a solitary and relentless pursuit that pays off with all the regularity of a slot machine.
However, I must say this: if I did find the need and opportunity to bring an intern on board, I would damn sure pay them for the time they worked. Furthermore, (again with a second ‘furthermore’) I hold in low esteem any employer who uses unpaid interns. Note the verb ‘to use’ in the previous sentence. That’s exactly what it is: taking advantage.
If you’re going to bring somebody into your office and ask them to work, pay them. The great ‘opportunity’ to gain ‘valuable experience’ and ‘make incredible contacts’ in your industry is all fine and good, but it just doesn’t cut the economic or ethical mustard anymore.
Long term studies show that unpaid internships promote income and social inequality. Only students or young workers from affluent backgrounds can afford to work without getting paid. So, they get a leg up on the career ladder, gaining valuable experience and meeting people, while often equally qualified candidates have to wait tables because it pays.
It’s not fair and it’s not right. Furthermore, (again!) unpaid internships lead to lower wages. If you worked an entire summer and made nothing, what happens when the same company offers you something to work? You probably take it because it’s something, even though it may be lower than the going rate or what you’re worth. And lower wages don’t help any of us because workers need to be paid enough to survive, save, invest, spend money, and make the economy go ’round.
Finally, offering unpaid internships to work at for-profit companies who are, by definition, making a profit, and sometimes a huge profit, smacks of a Dickensonian level of greed and a complete lack of empathy for college students or recent graduates and their families.
It’s not Old Money to offer unpaid internships. It’s tacky and classless. Hopefully soon it will be illegal. Until then, consider boycotting companies who offer them and if your company or colleagues are party to this exploitation and you agree with me, give ’em a piece of your mind.
There’s no excuse for it.