This is How Old I Am

I’m so old that when I had a college internship, I actually got paid for it. And then, the next year, instead of having another internship, I got a job. Because in the old days, that was the path of the intern. Today’s intern path appears to curve in on itself, and the only hope for an actual job on that path is to do so many internships that you achieve a sort of momentum that eventually lets you hit escape velocity and launch yourself into the world of actual paying employment. I think I like the way it used to work better.

What bothers me about unpaid internships is not fundamentally that they are unpaid (although that really isn’t a good thing), but that the purpose of internships seems to have changed in an uncomfortable way: it’s gone from a way to train students in practical real-world application of skills they’ve learned in college to a way to plug, for free, actual skill gaps in one’s work force. I don’t doubt interns learn something in the latter scenario, but what I suspect companies learn is that there’s little point in hiring for certain roles and tasks because there’s always a new crop of interns. Thus begins a baseline expectation for business that some labor is always meant to be free, and so long as they give themselves legal/moral cover by calling that work an “internship,” there’s no reason not to exploit it.

And while I admit that I can see there is some appeal to this idea — I wouldn’t mind having a college-age lackey I could boss around and make clean my house and fecth me my Coke Zeros, all for free, in the guise of them being an “intern” for a bestselling, Hugo-winning writer — I don’t think it’s the correct thing to do. Internships are work; work should be paid for. Internships train workers; they should not be used to replace them. And just because you can get a 21-year-old terrified that his/her college resume is too light to work for free on the dubious assurance of course credit and/or a job reference, doesn’t mean you should. Pay the poor kid something, why don’t you.

I know, I know. Getting paid for work is very 20th century. Call me a relic.

128 Comments on “This is How Old I Am”

  1. I can see both sides of it. Obviously getting paid is always better than not getting paid. But I think far more useful and important is whether an internship leads to a job.

    My own post-grad internship was unpaid, but since the company hired me immediately afterward, I found it well worth it.

  2. Both a son and a niece went through the unpaid internship, staying with us. I don’t remember what she did, but he went to work for Starbuck’s the next summer.

    I know of someplaces that charge you for working the internship.

    The company I last worked for used summer interns in my division but I’m fairly certain none were ever hired into a ‘real’ job.

  3. This reminds me of something I was told about doing consulting: if you do work for somebody for free (or cheap), they won’t take you seriously, but if you charge them through the nose for the same work then they will treat you as if you are Like Unto the Gods.

    I expect that internships are the same way: the value they put on your work equals what they are paying you for it. If they aren’t paying you . . .

  4. In the fields I have the most experience (software engineering and information security), interns are paid reasonably well.

  5. During my college years I was required to have two semesters of internship. My degree is a BS in Professional Writing (technical) and I ended up working at VERY small publishers (2-4 people each). Both times the positions were unpaid and all I did was grunt work on the computer (layout and formatting). I learned more about how the business world works (why pay them when we can get them for free and abuse them?) than I did about the publishing business.

  6. I graduated with college with no internship, as a software engineer. I went to college in an isolated city one state west, where I wouldn’t be living after I graduated. That, coupled with the Indian outsourcing boom of the early 2000’s, meant hard times for anyone seeking a job – internship or not.

    But… after 3 months of extensive searching, I found a job, with nothing on my resume but my college education. It wasn’t in my field, but it was related. And that springboarded me into progressively more related fields.

    So my point is, it’s entirely possible to start your career without an internship under your belt.

  7. (I just graduated in May, and my last semester was filled with a couple of required courses and an unpaid internship.)

    I’ve got to agree with your assessment, John. I worked at a publishing house sifting through the slush pile and reviewing submitted manuscripts. I got rave reviews of my work for the entire semester, but they refused to hire me “because of the economy.” They were so impressed with my work that they offered me freelance work, which I accepted – it’s now been a month since the internship ended, and they haven’t had anything to send my way.

    And why should they? They run internship programs for Spring, Summer and Fall. There are about 3 weeks out of the year where they don’t have a pair of interns filtering through manuscripts. Why should they pay someone to do the same work?

    The entire experience has been frustrating and demoralizing, and I have the vague embarrassment of someone recently caught up in a confidence game.

    Now excuse me, but I’m going back to my job search, sifting through jobs for which I’m apparently “overqualified.”

  8. Thanks for the post. I think one of the things going on here is that there are degree programs that require students to do internships in order to graduate (I’m speaking specifically of graduate journalism programs, which are what I know about). It’s not just about nervous students who feel their resumes are light. There are students every year who must find an internship, or else. That opens the system up to a great deal of abuse, I think.

    The internship I found was paid, thank God, and I appreciated that a great deal. I was incredulous that some places expected me to work for them for free when that involved moving, often to New York (not exactly a place with low cost of living). That would have been terribly unsustainable, particularly considering that I’m married and that I would have had to either separate from my husband temporarily, or uproot him to come with me to a Place of Uncertain Prospects. Finally, I still had to pay tuition the semester that I interned.

    I think the system needs a hard look.

  9. I see internships as grudgingly provided volunteer positions. True volunteers believe in what you do and are willing to give of themselves to help support it.
    Unpaid interns do it to gain experience in the field. Hell, why don’t we go right back to calling it apprenticeship, and actually spend time with the ‘intern’, training them, mentoring, and help setting them up in the field. That, at least, is more a valuable use of the interns and the company’s time.

  10. Well, when you decide that you are tired of cleaning your house and would like an intern, would you please let me know where I can apply?

  11. But but but…FREE MARKETS!!!!

    Also, if only companies were less regulated and had lower taxes, they would pay more internships…somehow. Ask your local libertarian.

    Clearly, John is now a full-throated socialist. Go back to Russia, commie!

  12. @Megan – I’d assume using his email address, and a liberal application of the word “please” (and possibly “bacon”).

    On a more serious note, it seems to me, being nearly as chronologically advanced as our host, that internship is the mentally-challenged, red-headed stepchild[1] of apprenticeship, which was, once upon a time (ie: “back before ‘back in my day'”) the path to learning a complex job skill without getting paid (much, if anything) for it.

    The fundamental difference in this example being, of course, that apprentices were learning an actual long-term career skill (like a trade – carpentry, or plumbing, or blacksmithing, or being a mechanic); interns get the sh*t jobs that nobody wants to make a career out of, unless there’s a secret cabal of Office Managers for whom that was their intention all along.

    [1] Why are they always red-headed, I wonder?

  13. MH has the best post on the subject.

    A lot of my college friends are looking for summer work right now, some of them taking unpaid positions. Here’s my thoughts: if it’s related to my course of study, I would _never_ take an unpaid position. I’ve completed half my undergraduate program so far; those skills are worth something. I’ve already got one job in the computer science field as a part-time thing throughout the year, and I’m applying to be part of an NSF research team with a generous stipend. At this point, for me to accept an unpaid internship somewhere would be foolish. My time is worth something as well — I can sink hours and hours into your volunteer position, but I probably will get just as much out of it as checking groceries at the local super, for less recompense. Eventually it’s going to bite companies in the ass.

  14. Why are these kids (and their parents) paying to go to college again?

    I opted out of school because I didn’t want to consume my family’s life savings, and going into debt myself didn’t seem like a great idea either.

    I’ve often wondered if I’d have found more rewarding work had I gone to, and paid for, college. Maybe after several internships, I would have. But starting work at 18 without that debt allowed me to save, buy a couple houses, marry an incredible woman, run my own business for a while, and, hey, do some honest work that I get paid for.

    Trade school seems like the smartest route, these days. I often wish I could fix cars or do plumbing. Those careers have internships too, but they pay, and pay a lot better than a stint at Starbucks.

  15. Maybe engineering is stuck in a time warp, but my fiance had her first internship at a nuclear power station and got paid for it, her second at an oil refinery and got paid for it, and when she graduated the refinery hired her.

  16. Yeah, really! I’ve worked at summer-intern-hiring offices for many years now, and the fact that they don’t get paid just kills me.

    At my current office, we try to be a little kinder to the unpaid interns than the work-study students. If there’s a job filing, and a job checking page proofs, we give the filing to the paid person. Not that checking page proofs is so awesome, but at least it’s specific to publishing, so it is genuine work experience in the field.

    Part of the current problem is pure market forces, though. I got my first job out of college within ten days of my last class ending. That was 1994. Had I graduated with the rest of my age-mates in ’90 or ’91, I would have been coming into a recession market, and I’m sure it would not have been so easy.

  17. @14, Rafe

    I’m given to understand that the origin of “Red-headed stepchild” is unknown, but there was a time when red hair was seen as extremely unattractive. The term “ginger” is originally pejorative and even the wikipedia entry on red hair has a big section on “Gingerism” meaning “prejudice against redheads.”

    So the smart money is on it just being a combination of two frequently bullied demographics: redheads and stepchildren.

  18. That is a tough one. My company does not pay interns. I believe that they should be paid and have argued to get pay for my interns as vigorously as I could. That said, I work in the IT field, my interns are completely green and inexperienced. The value of the time I spend supervising them is worth way more than the value of the work that we receive from them. Even so, I do not like the idea of people working for nothing. It seems un-American to me.

  19. I was probably fortunate in that I graduated in 1985 (a year later than I should have, but there was partying to be done!). No internship, but if you had any kind of technical degree and could breathe on a regular basis, you could get a job as a programmer.

    I fear for my kids, though.

  20. @19, PJtB:

    Now that you’ve laid it out like that, it does seem fairly likely (and somewhat obvious, but that might just be this morning’s coffee kicking in, too).

    I can’t see the word “Ginger” without picturing three things: Gilligan’s Island, sushi, and the “What Dogs Hear” Far Side strip. :-)

  21. “‘The fact that the wage is zero doesn’t mean that compensation is zero. Usually, you gain something,’ said Columbia professor of economics Till von Wachter, referring to training, experience, and contacts.”

    Um, thanks, got all the character building I needed when I was younger.

    Say, remember when it was illegal to require work for no pay? Ah, the good old days.

  22. Unpaid internships have the additional negative effect of creating a financial barrier to entry for an entire industry. If the only way to get a good start in a field is to take an unpaid internship, then the only ways to get a good start are to work another job, or to have parents who will pay for your food, shelter, and 3-piece suits.

  23. There is a lot of variation in what interns get to do, and in some cases that experience might be valuable enough to be worth doing for nothing, but in general it reeks of scam.

    If people are being required to do these as part of their degree requirements, the institutions involved should make sure they are doing something substantial.

  24. So apparently I’ve been living in blissful-ignorance-land. When I did my internship (technical writing) a mere 3 years ago, not only did I get paid for it, but I did the same work as the actual employees. After I graduated, I went to another company for a year but then came back to the place I interned. The work isn’t different – there’s just a lot more of it and they expect it faster. My wife went through basically the same experience with her editorial internship.

    All my college age friends that went the internship route got paid for it. In fact, the only one I know who didn’t get paid for it was my friend who clerked for his externship during law school. So it makes me very sad indeed to learn that there are vast swaths of collegians being told they “have” to work for free, and apparently vast swaths of businesses under the impression that these same collegians should just give away their precious few free hours. That things seem to have changed so much so rapidly saddens me greatly.

  25. @Rafe — I assumed it was to imply that there was a parent being cuckolded, since it’s pretty hard to combine blonde, brown, or brunette and get red.

  26. Tim Eisele@#4

    I once agreed to do a web site for $500 to put in my portfolio and to save a coworker starting her own business money.

    She got $3500 worth of work (LOTS of shoulder surfing and interrupted meetings whenever her daughter called – which was frequently.) In the end, I was told I needed to ditch my standup career to focus on her company’s needs and, oh, my business name was too negative to be associated with her.

    I did get my check, though, despite having to wait a week to cash it.

    Needless to say, we do not do business anymore. Would you?

  27. @19, PJ the Barbarian

    I’ve often heard “left-handed” added to the red-headed stepchild combo … perhaps another underappreciated trait?

  28. Student teaching has always been an unpaid internship. Doesn’t make it right, and while it’s billed as a means to get your foot in the door when the district is hiring, that’s somewhat overrated unless you’re in a small district.

  29. *sigh*

    Here in France, in the publishing sector, there is a long tradition of unpaid internships. The reason is there used to be no college programs to train job applicants, either, so the majority of those had no valuable skills and had to be trained on the job.

    But nowadays, there are actual training programs, people who apply for jobs do have skills in book edition, marketing, graphics, etc.. But they still are often forced to take unpaid internships when they begin, even when it’s part of their graduate cursus, because the publishers have not changed what they budget for paying interns and seem to have no intention to.

  30. I’m a “non-traditional” student (our advising office’s euphemism for “old”) in an Industrial Design program. Our course of study requires an internship for graduation and this spring I applied for over 70 positions before I found one.

    I’m a lucky, lucky bastard. My position is paid, involves a variety of relevant work, and it’s only a few miles from my house. When I asked around before the summer break, less than 1/3 of my class had found anything. Most of those internships were unpaid and they required relocation. It’s a lousy economy for all kinds of companies, but COME ON PEOPLE, asking your free labor to relocate at their own expense is just asking for a huge dose of karma.

    In the happy little utopia in my brain, internships aren’t just about cheap labor and training. They’re outreach opportunities, where company and intern have 3 months to get acquainted. When that student leaves your company and returns to school, he’s going to share his experience with dozens, or even hundreds, of potential employees and competitors. Want to attract the best applicants to your company? Then invest in your interns! They’re some of the best recruiters you’ll ever hire.

  31. My part of our huge company has unpaid internships, but we do expect that the interns will be given work at which they will learn something. We have few of these.

    We also have paid summer jobs, which we assume justifies the fact that they’re meaningless–filing, photocopying, more photocopying, etc. We have many more of these, and we do not call them “internships.”

  32. You drink COKE ZERO?? That’s just disgusting!

    Oh, and the notion of unpaid internships is just exploitation. Here in Australia even the highschool kids doing a week’s work experience get payed.

  33. Part of the problem is that too many college graduates are worthless to employers. There are an awful lot of people in college who simply shouldn’t be there and they’re learning nothing that will make them employable when they get out.

    One shouldn’t expect the education boom to end any better than the housing and investment booms did.

  34. It must be nice to have a pile of money laying around so you can not get paid to work. I wouldn’t know, as I’ve worked continuously since I was sixteen.

  35. I would never work for free (unless it was for a good cause) and especially not after watching my gf go through an unpaid internship to work at a lab. They worked her hard and for long hours and she had to have a full time minimum wage job on the side just to keep eating. They did hire her at the end of it for a reasonable amount, but unfortunately it hasn’t lead anywhere and she’s now unemployed again and looking, again, for possible unpaid internships. Or volunteer work. Anything at a lab. Because they’re certainly not hiring.
    I understand the need for internships and I understand the need for cheap labor, but not free. Maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle, before the only “internships” left are all unpaid. Not everybody has a supporting family or is able to go deep into debt in the vague hopes that the internship might lead somewhere. It’s unskilled labor but it’s still labor; compensation should be mandatory.

  36. TAB, I graduated college 5 years ago, and none of the internships I applied for while I was in school were paid. In fact, I only remember seeing one listing for a paid internship while I was looking. So things haven’t changed as quickly as you think. You and your friends were just lucky, as far as I can tell.

  37. “Why buy the cow…” as they say.

    Film production interns are notoriously crapped upon. Yet, (or perhaps because) there are still 1,000 glistening eyed wannabes waiting in the hall for the current intern(s) to get fired. Why on earth would you pay somebody for that, somebody else is willing to do it for free!

    It is my outdated understanding that unpaid interships are legally required to be attached to educational facilities. And volunteer work requires some amount of government paperwork, wrt sidestepping minimum wage laws.

    For many years, Blizzard Entertainment (game developer) plastered all over their web job-listings that they don’t do internships. Because they were a busy house that wanted competent people. Not a training facility, or a hang-out for fans & wannabes. I thought that was relatively upstanding of them.

  38. It’s a serious class issue – only those who have someone else footing the bill for them (parents of means, usually, in the case of college students) or are otherwise independently wealthy can afford to do unpaid internships. I’m of Scalzi’s vintage and needed actual money to live on during “breaks” from college – so that meant paying jobs, not fancy internships.

  39. The unpaid internship is yet another barrier to entry for people without money. When I went to college it was on a shoestring budget and I had to work all summer to build back up some fundage. I just could not have gotten an unpaid internship no matter where that set me back in future job searches.

  40. As a college student, I approve this message.

    Although, to be honest, Georgia Tech-sponsored internships are pretty good about paying their employees. Co-ops are better, though – the companies have more incentive to pay you and treat you well if they know you aren’t just there for a semester, but you will keep coming back every two with new skills and a better appreciation for having cash-in-hand.

    Nevertheless, idiot that I am, I typically work for free just to play with the fun toys other people have without getting busted for trespassing. Last time I had an “internship,” I was under the minimum age for that particular company, but managed to convince them to let me show up just to help out and get a feel for their company. My compensation was permission to go dumpster diving – got some cool old IBM rack servers, which actually is a pretty good deal when you are a compsci nerd with no other income.

  41. When I was a grad student–halfway through a masters program I had to take an internship as a program requirement. Just about everything I had found paid “in experience” or “class credit.” I ended up taking the one that paid minimum wage-and was thrilled. Yes I sold out a bit, but I got to eat that summer.

  42. I was an unpaid intern for CBS News in New York City back in the mid-1990s. In the department where I worked, there were basically four castes: the higher-up brass, the producers (their word for salaried low-to-mid-level professionals), editors (highly-skilled technical people with their own labor union) and interns (me, et. al).

    The editors (like I said, they were in a union) had a _big_ problem with the existence of unpaid interns in their workplace– one of the smartest things that I did that summer was to take the personal overtures toward the editors such that they didn’t hold their general anti-intern grudge against me specifically. (Other interns didn’t do this, and then wondered why they coulnd’t get the editors to cooperate with them).

  43. I’m older than John and the closest I ever came to having a real internship was a summer job as a cameraman for a local PBS station. I was paid minimum wage and got college credit at the same time. (And I was a really crappy cameraman, but nobody seemed all that worked up if I missed the shot of somebody at the City Council Meeting for a few seconds.)

    After that, I chased down a real job for real pay (at least by my standards at the time), and then wrangled some college credits out of that. In fact, I was so hot to get credits and get the hell out of school, I stayed at the job (well past graduation) and talked my way into additional credits for a “directed study” and some other nonsense I made up. I think I graduated on time while taking a 1/2 course load and working full-time my last three semesters.

  44. OK, red-headed stepchild. Let’s think about this for a second. Why do fairy tales contain so many step-mothers? Because of the mortality surrounding childbirth. So the child has a female parent who views him or her as “not my kid” and gets treated that way. What about the red hair? Since it is such a distinctive trait, it could be argued that a red-headed child born to non-red-heads = infidelity. So now you have a father also looking at the poor little red-head thinking “not my kid”. Makes sense to me anyway.

  45. TAB@27

    “So apparently I’ve been living in blissful-ignorance-land. When I did my internship (technical writing) a mere 3 years ago, not only did I get paid for it, but I did the same work as the actual employees.”

    Until this year, many industrial design internships worked the same way. When our class started the 3rd year internship search, I contacted every company that employed a student from our program in the last 3 years (our internship coordinator keeps a list). More than half of them had either canceled their internship programs or switched to non-paying internships. Hopefully this is just a temporary situation.

  46. Regarding apprenticeships: don’t let nostalgia fool you – in may space-time locations apprentice abuse was so common it was basically expected.

  47. Delurking to share my delightful scam of a degree requirement: for my library school degree, I’m required to work at an unpaid internship. Yes, it’s required to be unpaid. And because it’s also part of a class I’m required to take, I get to pay tuition for the privilege. Leaving me in even more debt than I’d originally planned on when I decided to get the damn MLS.

    Fortunately, the libraries in the area work with the school to make sure everyone gets a placement in their preferred field, so I’ve got something that looks like it will be good experience if nothing else. Unfortunately, since they do this every semester, by the time I graduate they will have had two more hopeless bastards just like me, cutting the possibility of my getting a job there when I’m done down to, oh, nothing. (Not to mention that, despite all those rosy employment predictions from back when I started this degree, city councils strapped for cash have decided to cut their library budgets, so there aren’t any jobs to be had anywhere. Oh, I’m not bitter.)

  48. What Scalzi said, plus infinity.

    Government, especially here in DC, is one of the worst abusers of interns. The hours are long, the work is horrible (the most prestigious internships put the interns to work on the most menial tasks), and all you’re doing is just adding to your student loan debt. And since you are paid nothing for working long hours, all you do is spend the weekend getting drunk off your ass, or if you have no money – which is the only way most college kids can afford to do internships – you’re working a second, real, job – mostly waiting tables.

    I was the only person in my college class who never did internships. Instead, I signed up for work-study jobs at the university (working in the residence hall offices, a few jobs for professors/deans, a summer moving/repairing dorm furniture and superivising cleaning crews), and got paid. And yeah, I got a job out of college. It’s boring, but it pays well enough so that I can afford an apartment and a car and food and internet and health insurance. Which is more than I can say for some of my friends from college, many of whom went to graduate school full-time, did more unpaid internships, and added on more debt. (When I graduate law school, I’m going to be only $80K in the hole, which is roughly 20-30% of what a lot of my college classmates will owe from their grad schooling.)

    There are only two reasons to do a job – love or money. If the job offers you neither, don’t take it.

    @13 MH: I’m not following your leap from this topic to bashing libertarianism. One of the basic tenets of libertarianism is that all people have rights to compensation for their labor and the right to refuse or leave jobs that do not adequately compensate them, and that being forced to work without pay is properly called slavery. Businesses didn’t come up with the idea of unpaid internships. That was higher education’s doing. (And the only true socialists you will find anywhere in America live in college towns.)

  49. Going by my own internship experience, it may well be that the reluctance to offer pay is commensurate with the relative lack of skills displayed by many college students of this generation, as compared to their predecessors.

    I went back to school at 34 to get a second degree and I was absolutely appalled at the lack of basic knowledge, skills and interest in learning among my fellow students. When I did my original go-round 15 years prior, I would never have even gotten into college in the first place with such a gross lack of language skills and general knowledge.

    All I can imagine is that standards at the secondary school level slipped so far when these kids were there that colleges had no choice but to admit them because there weren’t any other applicants who were more qualified. It’s also possible that grade inflation and rote learning of the SAT made these kids seem brighter than they really were.

    Whatever the case, I can understand somewhat why businesses wouldn’t want to pay for the substandard work they’re going to get out of many interns these days, and I also understand why a lot of college grads are pushing burgers instead of papers. If I were a hiring manager, there’s no way I’d take on someone who can barely string a coherent sentence together, and whose work ethic is such that they work only between texts and long breaks.

    I greatly hope that this is just a generational thing–that the biggest problem these kids have is that they were the victims of the Reagan-era gutting of public education, and the generation behind them will improve. But since Gen Y is so huge, demographically, they’re still going to be a vast gulf of poor quality workers dragging us all down for some time.

  50. I should probably qualify my above comment by saying that it doesn’t apply to every member of Gen Y. I have indeed met many who are bright, motivated and care about their education and the work they produce.

    It’s just sad that they are so few that they stand out and thus I remember them better.

  51. I know that anecdotal evidence has the statistical relevance of ERA, but when I worked at MS (’93-’03), we considered internships as extended recruiting opportunities, not only for the specific intern, but for all the intern’s classmates after they returned to school.

    As such, we paid pretty well*, and the product teams were directed to give the interns “interesting” work, so they’d want to come back after they graduated.

    *you know, considering.

  52. I am a paid intern at a large tech company. I’ve interned with the company for five years (having started in high school). As it is, I’m now treated more as a regular employee than as an intern. Still, I am not expecting a job when I graduate. Management knows who I am (and is satisfied with my performance) for three levels above me, but hiring authorizations are now coming from much higher than that.

    We have also seen drastic reductions in our internship program. The first year I was here we had 70 interns on site. Last year, it was 30. This year, only 10. It makes me glad that this is my last year interning, since it looks like the intern program may be eliminated a this site before much longer.

    I’ve been treated very well by this company, but at the same time, doubt I would accept a regular position here. I’ve had time to observe how the other employees are treated. Job security is nonexistent, perks are disappearing, and pay is dropping, while workloads skyrocket. For low job security, low pay, and high workload, I may as well join a startup with an interesting new concept, and the potential for a big payoff if the company takes off.

  53. ericanaoneon @ 10

    I think one of the things going on here is that there are degree programs that require students to do internships in order to graduate. … It’s not just about nervous students who feel their resumes are light. There are students every year who must find an internship, or else. … The internship I found was paid, thank God, and I appreciated that a great deal. I was incredulous that some places expected me to work for them for free

    Of course, If you’re paying to go to school, and that’s the reason you’re taking the internship, then you need to deduct the cost of school — or at least of the class — before you decide it’s “free”

  54. Tal: Your comments read *exactly* like early nineties complaints about Gen X.

  55. For one crazy semester in 1998, I worked a paid internship, an unpaid internship, a side workstudy job and took a full load of classes. Two internships were required of my professional writing degree — I was just nutty enough to try them concurrently.

    The paid internship lead to a nine year gig at the same company. In fact, when I left, my boss joked that it was the end of the world’s longest internship.

    The unpaid internship saw my supervisor calling me at three in the morning because he had a “brainstorm” about his project and wanted me to do research. Oh, and by the way, what was I wearing? And was I sleeping alone? Oh, that’s hot. (Why yes, it was the creepy middle aged and yet still single documentary professor! How’d you guess?)

    But still, that semester doesn’t compare to one of my much younger colleague’s cheerful admissions of paying a semester’s worth of tuition to a company for the privilege of being the slush pile girl for six weeks. I was absolutely horrified that she spent (or rather, her parents spent) roughly what I make in three months’ salary to work. I wanted to explain that we get paid for work. It shouldn’t be the other way around.

  56. It occurs to me that my earlier comment may come off as sounding like tooting my own horn about what a genius I was in scamming the system. I meant to highlight that, not only did no-one expect me to work for free, they were also more than happy to help me get college credit for the work. All it cost them was a letter at the beginning and an evaluation at the end. In hindsight, that was rather generous of them.

  57. I did two unpaid internships while I was in a paralegal studies program from 1989 through 1991. They were required for graduation from the program. One was for the county counsel’s office and in the other, longer one I worked for a judge in what was then a justice court (it’s now been converted to a municipal court, but that has nothing to do with my story).

    Especially in the internship for the judge, I did substantive work that included creating a program for getting old small claims cases out of the system and then teaching staff at other justice courts how to implement the program. I also wrote, at the request of the judge, a handbook to go along with a videotape for judges on telephonic search warrants. As far as I know, the handbook is still being used here in California to help judges learn procedures for granting such warrants. I also wrote substantive memos for the judge on issues she had to make rulings on. My favorite was a memo that defined when hunting was hunting, and when it wasn’t.

    However, when I finished the program and started to apply for jobs, my internships were not considered “experience” because I had not been paid for them. Most firms would not even consider my applications because I had not been paid for my work, so I ended up never working as a paralegal after having graduated second in my class after a rigorous two-year program.

    It still has not been adequately explained to me how I did not have the experience I gained in these internships just because I was not paid for the work.

  58. My company uses unpaid interns, and while I do think that kind of sucks, I also don’t think we do it as “a way to plug, for free, actual skill gaps in one’s work force” – on the contrary, I think we’re offering to plug, for them, for free, actual gaps in their skills. The kids we get are rarely capable of doing much in the way of useful work without extensive training, which eats up (paid) staff time. We spend more time teaching them than they accomplish for us in terms of the time it would take paid staff to do the same thing.

    Maybe in the past college students pre-degree were more useful in their fields than they are now – but in my experience, they’re getting a lot more out of us than we are out of them.

  59. The journalism internship that I had to do back before the Earth’s crust cooled (1984 or so) was unpaid, but led to my first job. When I switched fields in the early ’00s, my clinical internships were also unpaid but also led to my first job, so it all worked out.

    Unlike some of the folks suggest, though, I’m neither wealthy nor was I financed by someone else – I just worked a paid job in addition to the internships and the classes. It was difficult to juggle sometimes, but I suppose that, since it was what I had to do, it didn’t dawn on me to complain. I just did what was required to get to where I wanted to be.

    Now I’ve come full circle, and arrange placement for clinician interns and have an administrative intern of my own each year. I’m not able to pay them, but I try very hard to make sure that they are in a position to meet people in a variety of organizations who can make hiring decisions. We’re not all abusers.

  60. Steve Burnap and Tal; and about the Greatest Generation complaints about baby-boomers, etc, all the way back to Plato (which is the earliest rip on the next generation I can recall).

  61. Getting a paid internship was one of the major reasons I took my job seriously and tried to learn as much as I could to impress my bosses. Also, I dont know what I would have done without the money…

  62. I am a recent college grad and I was an unpaid intern, but I was learning at the feet of a great professor. While unpaid, while I filed or graded paper he would sit there and tell me about his career and the ins and outs of the field. His knowledge was priceless and his reference opened a lot of doors for me.

    But I think I was lucky in this regard.

  63. We use unpaid interns at DesiLit and the SLF. The value of the work they do is notably less than the value of our time to train them. They usually come in knowing pretty much nothing of use to the organizations — they have youth, energy, and willingness to do tedious grunt work. That’s about it.

    Since the rest of the organization is entirely volunteer-based, our unpaid interns are paid the same as everybody else. And the rest of our volunteers usually require far less hand-holding than our interns do, since they’re generally adults with real world jobs who already know how to do things like understand basic graphic design, use a graphics program to layout program books, design logos and flyers, publicize an event, write press releases, write coherent and business-like e-mails, take on a task and complete it in a timely fashion, etc. and so on.

    In other words, we get a bit of grunt work out of the interns, but mostly, we invest in them to help them get started on their careers, and hope that they’ll end up contributing to the arts community more substantially later on.

  64. Also, our undergrad interns get course credit for doing them. Which does, in fact, mean that they’re paying for the privilege, but also means that it’s part of the entire college system — asking if it’s worthwhile for them means that you should also ask whether their other courses are worthwhile. Generally, I think our internships do at least as much in terms of future job value as the post-colonial literature class or the intro-to-fiction class I teach.

    Most of my students are also paying their own way through college, through a combination of loans and part-time work. It’s a tough road, no doubt, but they seem to think it’s worthwhile.

  65. As part of my wife’s training as a school psychologist, she was required to do a one-year internship for the local school district. She got lucky because she was selected to be one of the three interns that got paid.

    This year the district hired no interns. This is in a field where just a couple of years ago all graduates of the program got jobs. When my wife graduated just last year, most did not have jobs.

  66. This relates to another trend I see now. Back in the day, they used to tell us disabled people (unemployed at a rate of 70%) to beg for unpaid “trial work periods.” This was whether you were applying for work at McDonald’s or at a prestigious law firm. The thinking was that employers who were unlikely to give you the time of day (almost all of them) could try you out at no risk to them and you could not only have a little time to figure out your accommodations but prove yourself and get hired.

    Now (with disabied unemployment still at 70%) the prevailing wisdom is that you should never work for free. What they found was that volunteer work very often didn’t lead to a real job offer. Nor did it lead to the person being canned. It only lead to more volunteer work and hoops to jump through. Employers took advantage of free labor and made excuses about not hiring due to the one or two little things a disabled person couldn’t do (instead of trading tasks like many nondisabled people get away with) or refused to hire and provide accommodations that they would be forced to under the ADA laws but not for volunteers.

    My first job after graduating college (after my unpaid two semesters of student teaching, slave labor if there ever was slave labor) was being a sacker in a grocery store. And this took me three interviews and a threatened lawsuit to get. They didn’t want to pay me because other disabled people had volunteered there. If I would have agreed to volunteer, I would have never gotten paid…ever. Thankfully, I’ve moved on from that trajectory, but I agree with the others that say if you are willing to work for free there is no shortage of people that will be more than happy to take you up on it.

  67. I have seen both sides of the internship story. One of the requirements to be called to the Bar in Ontario is that you must article for one year; the job is usually paid, but does not have to be paid. I got paid, and got paid reasonably well. I also worked at a good place that gave me good work and where I learned lots; I still quote some of the lessons that I learned from the lawyers that I articled with.

    Where I work we have occasionally used volunteers. Mostly they come from two sources: labour studies students who have to do a placement with a social service agency, and law students who are keen on getting some work and learn some law stuff between 1st and 2nd year.

    The labour studies students are a mixed bag; we have gotten some gems, but mostly it’s been dross and we spend more time thinking of work for them to do, than we get. With the law students we have had more success; since we don’t advertize for volunteers the folks we get are keen. But the work we got from them more than made up for the time we spent supervising the quality of the work.

    The worst example of attempted abuse of volunteers came in my workplace. What makes it faintly disgusting is that I work for a small legal clinic; we are supposed to be a progressive organization that does not believe in the exploitation of workers. The reality is sometimes different. Someone mooted a plan to expand our use of volunteers. It would involve having volunteers doing almost all the administrative work on a voluntary basis (i.e. unpaid). We could then shift our administrative staff to do the work of our paralegals; they would get no pay raises, nor even a title, but they would get the work.

    This was sold to us as a way of redirecting our resources towards client services; this was supposed to be a good thing because we could help people living in poverty in our community. I saw it as a way of exploiting our volunteers and our secretaries: essentially we would have unpaid secretaries and we would have our paid secretaries doing a job that should have paid anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 more than we were actually paying our secretaries. I very loudly and very publicly pointed this out and reminded people that if I wanted to exploit workers, I would not have started working in a legal clinic. The looks on people faces when I pointed out this uncomfortable truth was priceless.

    Needless to say, the volunteer project that actually got off the ground was very different. It involved having geniune volunteers doing work that needed to be done, but that had no-one that we could have do it. It worked out in the end as well; one of the volunteers ended up being hired for an administrative job when one of our admin staff took a job with another organization.


    P.S. None of the people involved in the above noted story are bad people, they were just misguided in this initiative. One of the reasons I felt comfortable in telling them my point of view is that the folks who came up with this iniative were nice folks who did not mind be told stuff that was uncomfortable.

  68. When I worked for a non-profit in New York City, we had unpaid interns – basically they were volunteers. However, from what I remember we made a point of interspersing the grunt work with interesting stuff.

  69. I have two summer interns this year — and in neither case were they requested or sought out. Both have wealthy parents who used their pull and connections to arrange for the internship; one is new to us, one is coming back for a second year. Neither intern really seems to care if we pay them or not, because the relatively low hourly rate we pay student interns probably doesn’t make much of a dent in their normal spending allowance. :p For what it’s worth, we are paying the 2nd-year intern hourly; the 1st-year intern is just getting a small stipend. As well, neither intern is ever planning on looking for a job even remotely like what they’re doing here — but the relevant work experience is a big plus for getting into med/grad school. As a result, the skills they learn don’t matter nearly as much as just being in a setting where they can see what’s going on, and get a better idea of how this world works.

  70. Architects who are members of the American Institute of Architects are not allowed by the Code of Ethics to not pay interns. Or to not pay anyone in their employ, actually. That is a good thing. I think, although I may be wrong, that work done as an unpaid intern cannot be counted towards an intern’s Intern Development Program (IDP) hours and credits which must be completed (takes three years) before they can sit for the Architect Registration Examination (ARE). And all states require IDP to take the ARE. It just seems fundamentally wrong to work people and not pay them. You gain benefits from them. You should pay them. That’s call being an employer instead of a sweat shop owner.

  71. I did two unpaid internships as an undergrad, here in DC you can’t shake a stick without hitting two or three impoverished non profits with big ideas and very little money. Both of them gave me a small stipend to cover transportation costs. Anyway since my intern mentors treated me with respect, gave me professional advice and had me doing projects that weren’t all meaningless grunt work. (that came later when I was hired!) I figured it wasn’t a bad tradeoff.

  72. I work for a very small firm. Right now we have an intern who volunteered to work for free, as he is interested in both segments of our company. He just wants the experience while he studies for the Bar exam and waits for his scores, and is financially able to do so. Plus, being a small firm, everybody does a little bit of everything, so he’ll learn the basics from the ground up!

    Which doesn’t mean he will go away empty-handed. We’ll have several BIG projects over the next few months that the boss will toss a little “bonus” money our way as a thanks for working extra and putting up with him when he gets into trial-prep mode…

    And just so you know, normally we do pay interns a nominal salary for the 2 or 3 months they’re here, and this enterprising grad declined the offer.

  73. Re: redheaded stepchildren

    The version I always heard had to do with two stereotypes. The first was the idea that redheads are somehow more energetic, boisterous and mischievous than blondes or brunettes. They therefore would create something of a discipline problem as children. The second was that stepchildren would not be as loved or well-treated as one’s own children, and that therefore there would be less incentive to be understanding or patient with them.

    I guess the closest equivalent would be “beaten like a rented mule.”

  74. @watercolor —
    “It just seems fundamentally wrong to work people and not pay them. You gain benefits from them. You should pay them. That’s call being an employer instead of a sweat shop owner.”

    I think the issue here is that not all interns are being “worked”. Like some other people have reported above, the time and work I need to put into my interns significantly exceeds the work that they do. I’m not using them to fill a gap in my workforce — I’m having to create extra projects for them that will be far more useful to them than they will be to us. The exchange between our interns and us is far more like teacher/student than it is like employer/worker — as a teacher, should I be required to pay my students for the work they do on projects and papers?

    Now, our second-year intern has made enough gains in skills, knowledge, and experience to be able to take on some tasks that we actually need to have done, rather than just doing makework. She’ll still need a lot more supervision and training than even our lowest entry level employees, but she will actually be *working* for us and so is getting paid an hourly rate.

    The first-year intern, though? She has no skills or experience that are useful to us. A decent chunk of my time will be sucked up teaching her some basic level skills, but because even then the skill level will be lower than what we need for our actual work, I also need to spend time creating and supervising makework to give her opportunities to practice and develop those skills. There may be times when she will do some actual “work”, but will need 1:1 supervision from an employee, and so again will be costing us money/time/resources rather than earning for us. She has a positive net gain, we have a negative — why should we be required to further exacerbate that by paying her, given that she’s not actually contributing to our workforce at all?

  75. I went to Drexel University. They make a clear distinction with their internship program and call it CO-OP. Three CO-OPs are required to graduate when completing a 5 year engineering degree, and they are always paid positions. Drexel makes it a requirement for all employers to pay a reasonable rate to it’s student interns, in order to participate in the program. I know I wouldn’t have been able to finish my B.S. if i didn’t have the income the CO-OPs provided.
    UPenn, which is literally right next to Drexel has a majority of it internships as unpaid.

    My point is that it up to the Collages/Universitys to set the rules, no the business community.

  76. When I was in college, I lived on scholarship money and work-study programs in the college during the regular semesters. The only way I had to pay for rent and groceries over the summer was to work for a job that actually paid.

    So my opinion on unpaid internships for college students (high school students are presumably being sheltered and fed by someone) is nigh unto unprintable. I can’t read it as anything but a way to make sure that people who don’t come from sufficiently middle-class/wealthy backgrounds are unable to participate in the Speshul Bonus programs to get a jump ahead in the workforce. Because god knows when someone is scrabbling through college on a shoestring budget what they really need is yet one more barrier to getting a decent job in their chosen field on the other end because they didn’t have Mommy and Daddy taking care of them at the same time.

  77. This is a sore point between me and my boyfriend, because he was an engineering major and I went for Women’s Studies, so his experience with internships goes something like this: They put me through college! And my experience goes something like this: They expected me to spend a year’s worth of tuition financing housing for an UNPAID summer internship that wouldn’t have gotten me college credit, anyway.

    In conclusion, a big fat WORD on this entry.

  78. Getting college credit certainly has a monetary value. And there are paid internships out there, but they’re shrinking in number. On the other hand, my wife is in charge of an internship program, is expanding it, and getting good value out of some of the interns.

    The trick, like anything else, is in hiring well.

  79. I’m a year out of college and unemployed. While I wouldn’t take a completely unpaid internship, I’ve applied for (and failed to get) summer internships that wouldn’t even cover my rent and student loan payments. I have some savings, at least, so I’m currently trying to make a go of freelance work; so far, it’s not going well.

    The fact is that no one hires new college grads, except possibly for menial white collar jobs such as tech support (what I did for six months). When every job notice requires 2 years fast-paced office experience (or more)… of course every fresh grad is unqualified! Even if you worked during school, there’s no way you have what they’re looking for. And there’s no point to fudging it and applying regardless–in this economy, you can get a seasoned professional for what a new grad used to cost.

    When the alternative is sitting in your crappy apartment playing video games and drinking cheap vodka, I’m hardly surprised that plenty of folks are choosing unpaid internships instead. At least they’re relevant, and make you feel like you’re doing something.

    Me? I just have to somehow make it another year, and then I can go to grad school and hopefully become sufficiently qualified to exist in civilized, capitalist society. If that doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll just run from the creditors, change my name, and become a serf on somebody’s farm.

  80. I have been very lucky with the internships that I participated in through my graduate program. They all paid much more than minimum wage and they all involved work that was actually related to my field of study. Best of all my last internship resulted in my obtaining a job reasonably well paying job in an area of great interest to me. Perhaps the difference is my interships were all with various governmental departments in Canada. Maybe the private sector is different. I hate to think of all these people paying coop fees to work for free.


  81. In my long and checkered career, I’ve been a co-op, an intern, and worked for pay in the field to which I eventually aspired. If a fast food joint can afford to pay a high school student with essentially no skills minimum wage, why can’t an internship do likewise?

    OTOH, I also see why people in charge of interns get frustrated. The interns come in with the same lack of skills, and your valuable time (presumably you know something about the industry and are being paid for it) is being taken up getting them to the point where they don’t need constant supervision.

    In many of our high schools, the students are required to complete ‘community service’, unpaid volunteer work of anywhere from 4-60 hours to ‘give back’ something to the community. Maybe 10% of the kids actually want to be where they are volunteering; after they work for a while, about half of that have changed their minds about wanting to be there. Meanwhile they still need to be micromanaged while they learn enough to be useful. Then, about the time they have done that, they have finished their stint and it’s time for the next group.

  82. I work at Mozilla and all of our interns are paid. The same was true when I worked at Microsoft. I think it really depends on the industry.

  83. Back when I ran my little indie record label (Racer Records), I had three interns. I paid them all (very slightly over minimum wage), and I also made a point of having regular meetings with them to talk about what they were doing and learning and make sure they were getting worthwhile experience from what they were doing (mostly calling college radio stations to see whether they’d consider playing our releases, please). I thought (and still think) it was the right thing to do.

  84. My niece is currently working in DC as an intern with a well-respected international non-profit. She took the internship as an opportunity to develop skills in the field that the non-profit operates in.

    Unfortunately the non-profit’s office manager took the summer off to … do an internship with another non-profit. Which means my niece, who went there to do interesting and substantive projects for them, is answering the telephone and paying invoices.

    This is not an internship: it’s administrative work and she should be paid for it. If she wanted to file paperwork all summer, she could have signed up with a temp agency.

    I’m quite annoyed on her behalf, but not at all surprised. Many non-profits, even when they mean well, don’t have the resources to manage interns properly, making sure they get interesting and substantive projects to work on that will actually help them in the future. So many interns spend their time making photocopies and typing up letters, which is, as John says, work that should be paid for. Especially if this is an internship for which they’re getting college credit, and thus they’re paying for already. Who wants to pay for the opportunity to make coffee and pay bills?

    Pffft. I was one of the kids who couldn’t afford to do internships in college, and I temped nearly every summer, instead. Learned a lot that way, including that familiarity with a computer and willingness to use at least half a brain would mean I’d never starve.

  85. When I was working on my Musicology degree (UNLV) in the early 70s, I was on work/study as far as the university was concerned. The ‘internship’ program was brand new and rather unique. In order to give the best instrumentalists a shot at the experience of playing at the main rooms on the Strip, the currently employed (musician’s union) at the site would need to take a (paid of course) night off so the student could cover their part for the night. Do that once a week over a wide range of casinos/main showrooms and you get valuable experience, network with most of your options for later work (sick board, vacation time fill in, etc.) and show your skills off. In context, the unpaid nature of the 10 to 12 nights spread over a semester seemed fair and I have never regretted it. That said, the architectural firm that was my last firm paid our interns a fair wage.

    PJ, Rafe@19,14

    I research the strangest things at times but if I remember correctly the whole ‘red-headed’ thing became a common phrase around, or shortly after, the time of the potato famine in Ireland. I’m also sure that it isn’t the earliest indicater of anti-immigrant bias in a culture.

  86. There are seeral forces at work here, but it is basically the Uninteded Consequences of labor laws.

    It is generally legal for someone to work for free, but it is not legal to pay them less than minimum wage. Depending on the industry your interns could be doing work that is well below MW value. Certain industries that are heavilly unionised will have similar restrictions, you can’t contractually pay folks less than the union minimum, though you may be allowed to have a certain number of unpaid intern positons. (especially true in the entertainment industry)

    The Aerospace industry has typically paid it’s interns. We pay ours, but policy is to fire them imidiately uppon graduation. In the Phoenix area you can make 10-12/hr flipping burgers so we have to pay our interns at least that much.

    Physics internships usually have a stipend attached, it’s ususaly small, but enought to eat on at any rate. (I believe this is generally true for the Hard sciences)

    Any accademic program that requires an internship, I think sucks on the face of it. It smacks of “mandatory volunteerism” which is one of the most evil things I can think of.

  87. I just finished my unpaid internship about three weeks ago. Granted, it was a short duration and it was required for the program (phlebotomy) the three sites I went to all trained me well. Afterward, they all told me they had a hiring freeze on. So I am still working at a bookstore, where they won’t allow me to draw blood, even for practice.

  88. @91

    I think that’s part of the problem. Somewhere along the line the definition of internship got blurred into meaning administrative work.

    But, beyond that it’s the ability of that office to understand how to work effectively with interns. Most people are trained on how to do their job, and justify every hour that they work. Then, someone comes along and asks them to carve out a few hours of substantive work a week that a totally unqualified college or graduate intern could do. It’s not the best motivator. It’s tantamount to saying ‘justify our reason to pay you less’.

    Even if the motivation is pure, and they want to provide substantive work, it’s really hard. and let’s face it, every one is always too busy at their job. it’s just easier to toss off some paper shuffling.

  89. In History departments, we call those “teaching assistantships”. TAs are paid for their work, but considerably less than professors. And yet, they frequently do the same work as professors, teaching full sized lectures, grading papers, and providing the service to students that professors do. Granted, most TAs teach half to a third as many classes as a professor (depending on how many classes the professor is required to teach), but they are also expected to take classes. If you’re very very lucky, your adviser will actually help you understand what you are doing in class, often you are supposed to pick things up as you go along. The goal here, ostensibly, is to teach graduate students how to be professors when they graduate. In practice, it creates a low cost, highly expendable workforce, unprotected by tenure, and subject to dismissal for any (or no) infraction.

    Once you graduate, you get to experience the joy of being an adjunct, which is just like being a TA without any of the perqs.

  90. In science departments, like chemistry, the teaching assistant approach is widespread. Chemistry departments have to provide two huge service courses: Introduction to Chemistry and Organic Chemistry. The former is taken by all freshmen who can’t get out of it and the latter is taken by all chemistry, biology, and especially pre-med students. TAs teach recitation sections with 20-30 students to go over the material presented in the giant lectures (200-300 students) by the professor. TAs also teach the lab sections of the course. So students have 1/200th of a professor or 1/20th of a grad student. The other issue that arises here is the teaching ability and English fluency of the TA.

    When I was at the University of Michigan (30 years ago) there was a legal battle between the TAs and the University over whether we had the status of employees or interns. If we were employees we had some rights. If we were interns we didn’t. Guess which side the University administration came down on.

  91. I used to be a co-op/internship coordinator at a co-op mandatory school — one of Drexel’s competitors, #82 — and although I’ve put my education career on hiatus to write books, I still dabble in internship/co-op coordination (which we snootily call “experiential learning”, if anyone wants a new $.25-cent term to impress your friends with) on the side. I’ve seen a lot of co-op/internship programs, and IMO the ones that demand students be paid are the best. The students get more hands-on, “real” experience as opposed to time-wasting mindless tasks, and the employers consider them valuable (if temporary) members of the team. The best employers that I worked with seemed to regard paid internships as a “try before you buy” plan — they didn’t take on interns unless they already were interested in hiring them after graduation, so the student had the promise of future employment as an incentive to perform well. The employers treated the internship as a 6-month interview, pretty much tossing the kids in at the deep end and helping them a bit, but otherwise forcing them to grow the hell up pretty fast — but if the students succeeded, they graduated with a job. The employers got a return on their investment of wages, because they got proven, loyal employees; the students got a return on the mortgage they paid to come to college, and could even skip going home to live with mom and dad after graduation. Everybody won.

    But this takes a buttload of work to make happen. I agree that paid internships are something universities have some power to control — but only up to a point. For one thing, most universities aren’t willing to make the financial and human resource investment necessary to sustain a paid-mandatory co-op or internship program. [Nameless Co-op School] had something like 40 faculty — yes, faculty — whose job it was to do nothing but develop, oversee, and evaluate 20,000 students’ work experiences. We taught mandatory classes to prepare the kids before they ever set foot in the workplace, so they wouldn’t embarrass the school or get themselves fired easily. After the co-op/internship, we surveyed and interviewed the students to make sure they’d gotten a useful experience — and we stopped working with those employers whose co-ops/internships weren’t up to snuff. (We’d meet with them first, and try to get the employer to make improvements, but sometimes — as in the case of sexual harassment or racism, which happened unfortunately often — we just pulled the plug.)

    But that was then. When I left NCS 2 years ago, they’d stopped hiring people as faculty to do this — just staff, which was lower-paid and more easily firable, plus less invested in study/improvement of experiential learning because they were no longer expected to do research or keep up with the latest/coolest experiential learning techniques. (FYI, the countries on the cutting edge of experiential learning right now are Australia, Europe, and most of Asia. The US isn’t even competitive.) These new staff are just there to get the kids jobs — any jobs. And if they try to take a stand against an employer who’s trying to exploit the kids, they can expect an angry phone call from someone in the upper administration, who’ll take them to task for “alienating the business community.” Naturally this amps up the pressure to encourage students to take unpaid jobs, because that’s what the business community wants.

    So yeah, universities have the power to make sure their students get good paid co-op/internship experiences… but the impetus still needs to come from employers. They’re the ones with the money and the power. But because of that, I don’t expect the situation to improve anytime soon, because employers in this country have a long tradition of taking advantage of free labor whenever it’s available. Sure, it’s slavery — but hey, what could be more American than that?

  92. I am the same age as you John, I was also paid for my internship and it also turned into a full time job afterword.

    I believe paying interns is a good thing. Just a few years ago I used college interns in our settop lab. I wanted button pushers who would take excellent notes on what they did. We paid them something more than $10/hr and I didn’t bring back any of them who couldn’t keep notes properly. No jobs in the end for any of the interns, my lab wasn’t part of our QA group, it was more of a bastard project. It did get excellent results though.

  93. @Miki – because training new graduates and new employees is part of business overhead. Do you only start paying new hires when they start being profitable for you? It is good for the industry to not exploit the newest in the door. If you are paying them, your investment in them is that much more serious. What are the interns to live on? Credit cards? Loans? So they are racking up huge debts to work for you? Nice. That is just ethically wrong to me. And to my whole industry.

  94. One thing I see from the professor’s side of the desk is employers contacting students with internships that they describe as being unpaid but coming with course credit attached. Without having had any discussion with the student’s college about what the student will be learning in this internship and the amount of course credit such an internship would be worth. There is clearly a perception that offering course credit is as good as offering money.

    The appeal to students, I believe, is that they tend to do these internships over the summer or on top of a full course load and it lets them accelerate their degree. They may not get paid for that work but they save on a semester’s worth of tuition. If your school makes you pay for course overloads, you may in fact be “earning” money by accepting these positions.

    From my side, though, my colleagues and I have taken the step of not only encouraging students to reject such offers because they are doing valuable work and deserve to be compensated, but also follow a policy of not giving internship credit unless there is substantial evidence that the experience will match what we could offer in our classrooms. I have advised many students that if they are going to essentially volunteer their time, I would rather see them donate their efforts to one of the many actual charities out there that could use a dedicated, regularly-scheduled hand in their efforts and would be just as able to throw a glowing reference their way upon graduation as the company that has no intention of hiring them in the long term.

  95. @100, watercolor

    The thing is, though, that the interns are free to not take the unpaid internships but they do anyway. Jobs don’t have some intrinsic wage that the people who work them “deserve,” a job is worth whatever amount the person who wants to do it and the person who needs it done agree on.

    The unfairness here isn’t that the labor’s being given away: that’s done freely.

    The unfairness is that the trust-fund brigade can afford to take an unpaid internship much more easily than a student on financial aid can.

    If there’s inequity here it’s another case of rich kids having more opportunities.

  96. Gaaaah welcome to my life. Someday I’ll be paid for the work I do. And before you say “Today should be the day, demand it!” I’ll remind you that I was out of work for about five months while trying to do just that.

    It’s a rough world out there for those of us under twenty-five who just graduated. We haven’t been in the paid workforce for long enough to be skilled and valuable employees who won’t be laid off, and unless we have a very specialized degree, we’re spending a lot of time navel gazing.

    Or, you know, doing copy projects. Excellent…

  97. PJ, it depends whether the students knew unpaid internships were going to be a part of the curriculum requirements. I sure wouldn’t like to discover halfway through my degree work that I would be expected to find a job in my field and do freebee work for a semester. Whether that would constitute a financial burden is relevant as well.

  98. @104 TheMadLibrarian: It’s certainly true in that situation, and again that’s a situation where the students from well-off families have an unfair advantage because they’re more likely to be able to afford to not work.

  99. I’m so old that the place I did my unpaid internship with actually hired me for pay later on. Of course, that was a newspaper (RIP).

  100. Bob@97

    When I did my MA, we had a similar debate, although it never reached the level of a legal fight. As TAs, we did not get the benefit being employees (such as the right to an employee parking pass); but as grad students we did not get the benefit of being “students”, such as access to the student health center. What we wanted was to be treated as one thing or the other, but that did not happen.

    Where I am now, I’m not actually a TA (I’m that odd bird – the PhD student who is actually PAYING to take classes. I do NOT recommend this), but the TAs do get some health benefits and some of the other perqs of being employees. The difference is that in Virginia, educational types are not allowed to form unions (note: TAs counted as educational employees for the purposes of the not forming a union, but not in any other way), but in New York, unions for teachers are allowed. So, the local TAs have a feeble union, which guarantees them health care.

    PJ@ 102: If it is generally accepted that you must be an intern in order to get your foot in the door, and if the industry into which you want to insert your foot is only offering unpaid internships, then you’re not really “free” to not take the internship. Or, rather, it’s a case of the freedom to work or to starve. Except, in this case, it’s the freedom to work AND starve.

  101. The big company (software development) I work for still 1) pays interns (yes, even this year), and 2) hires some of them afterwards.

    This summer we have a project management intern – so they’re not all uber-technical, either.

  102. @watercolor

    But these aren’t new employees, they aren’t people who will ever be looking for jobs here. We’re putting time, money, and resources into training them that we will in the vast majority of cases *never* see back. This isn’t a situation where people are coming to us for an internship, hoping to get hired on here later on. This is a situation where people are coming to us for an internship solely to have that on their resume for their med/grad school applications. These are people who will *never* be entry level employees at a business like this — they will go off to med/grad school, and after that enter a completely different field from this and at a drastically higher level.

    We’re not a university, we’re not being paid to educate people. We’re a business. Yes, we all remember being eager young students once, and that’s why we’re willing to spend our own UNPAID time putting together and supervising these internships — but that’s no reason why we should have to pay for the privilege of doing so.

    If interns need money to live on, they can do what every single other person on that planet who needs money to live on does — they can get a *job*. We have interns who also have jobs — that’s certainly what I did as an undergrad, going to school full time, working 35-40 hours a week to pay rent, groceries and medical bills, and doing an internship as well. Just because they need money is no reason why we should pay them when they aren’t contributing anything to our workforce, and have no plans to in the future. What they are doing here is not a job, and does not deserve to be paid like a job — they are not working for us, they are learning from us. They are the ones benefiting, not us — why should we have to pay for that? When I was a teacher, I didn’t pay my students to do their homework, and this really is the same sort of thing — their homework was for their learning, not for my profit, and the same is true for the makework people like me spend UNPAID time putting together for interns who want to learn these skills.

    Yes, this means that it’s easier for rich kids to do this than it is for kids who need to work for a living. But how is that different than anything else? It’s the same for going to college itself, it’s the same for volunteering in an orphanage in Cambodia, it’s the same for backpacking across Peru. All great educational experiences that are just a lot easier to obtain when you are rich — but that doesn’t mean that a company is obligated to PAY poor students to backpack across Peru so that they can afford to do it.

  103. Miki, I’m sorry — it sounds like you got a whole raft of “interns” who were more interested in having a space filled on a resume, rather than people who were serious about the business with the idea of becoming a contributing employee later. How many dedicated interns (percentage) were you able to offer a job, once they graduated?

    I’ve done the work-my-way-through-school thing, and it ain’t peaches. That’s one of the reasons I changed my major away from Industrial Design; I had professors who didn’t understand why I didn’t blithely want to take on thousands of dollars in college debt, just so I didn’t have to work. Unpaid internships as coursework requirement in addition to working for living expenses plus classload can be an incredible strain.

  104. Companies (at least in California, and very likely in other states) that don’t pay interns at least minimum wage have to give them course credit, or they are in violation of the law. Of course, many do give course credit, so that’s not a problem for them and that’s a form of compensation all its own, but if they don’t do one or the other, the unpaid intern has every right to take them to court at the end of the internship for back wages. Not good for getting a job from that employer, but they probably weren’t going to give that unpaid intern a job anyway.

  105. For what it is worth, our intern started just yesterday. He’s getting paid twice what I got for my best college job in ’86, so given inflation, I’d say he’s doing OK.

  106. Miki@109
    That’s a lot of generalizations you have there. Some interns are undoubtedly a drain on a company’s resources. But that doesn’t justify so much hostility.

    I can’t speak for every industry, but I’m confident that most companies have professional-level work that can be done by interns. In my field (industrial design) this includes CAD operation, market and pricing research, soliciting quotes, photography, digital image manipulation, prototype assembly, and human factors research. In my own firm (where I’m lucky enough to be paid for my internship) this is the stuff that a full-time designer does for most of the year. During the summer, it gets shifted to the intern. It’s not glamorous, in fact, it can be kinda boring. But it’s necessary to the design process, and easy enough that partially trained college students can do it successfully.

    By paying me for this internship, not only does my company get three months of low-cost labor, they also get my undivided attention. I’m more attentive, energetic, and willing to work extra hours to meet our deadlines. By paying me, they MAKE me a better intern. And, when classes resume in the fall, I will be sure to recommend them to my classmates and my intern director, which means their future interns (and possibly even their future employees) will be better too.

  107. Sisyphus@111

    “Companies (at least in California, and very likely in other states) that don’t pay interns at least minimum wage have to give them course credit”

    Ugh. That’d be a problem for me. In order to get those units, I’d have to pay my university a couple thousand dollars for summer classes. Without a paycheck, I doubt I could afford it and still make the rent.

  108. TheMadLibrarian @ 104

    “PJ, it depends whether the students knew unpaid internships were going to be a part of the curriculum requirements.”

    Several of my classmates are facing this problem now. Before this year, there were enough paying internships available, that most 3rd-year (the year when we’re required to take an internship) students could find one. Then the economy kerploded and the supply fell by at least half. Now I have classmates who are forced to choose between putting off graduation or moving to another city for an unpaid internship. It’s an ugly situation and I’m pathetically grateful I didn’t have to make that choice myself.

  109. No, the other Scott @!114: Exactly how can you afford to take any courses then? I’m not saying that unpaid internships are justified, but if you need 6 credits to graduate and the choice is an unpaid internship or shelling out (or borrowing) a couple of thousand dollars for classes, how is an internship “unaffordable”? If you can’t afford the living expenses during the internship how can you afford them during the class?

  110. Bozo@116

    “If you can’t afford the living expenses during the internship how can you afford them during the class?”

    Three things:

    First, class schedules are a lot more flexible than work schedules. Most internships require students to work during normal business hours. In an unpaid internship, that’s the 40 best earning hours of the week lost to something that doesn’t pay. By contrast, my class schedule is much more flexible. I can stack classes into 2 12-hour days and work a day job (which, at least in my experience, pays much better than evening or weekend work) during the rest of the week. And, although my course workload requires me to work at least 40 hours every week, nearly half of that is homework which I can schedule around my employment.

    Second, the students who have to relocate for unpaid internships have to pay for their moving expenses, two different leases: the 12-month “model lease” at school and the short-term 3-month lease at their internship. Model leases may not appear everywhere, but this is my second degree (with stops at 2 community colleges and 2 universities) and they have been the only off-campus lease option for most students. On-campus housing may be an option at some campuses, but at my current campus it’s only guaranteed for first and second-year students. Beyond that, it’s a lottery.

    Students who relocate for the summer also lose many of the benefits of living near campus. In my case, that’s low-cost medical and dental care at the health center and free public transportation. If I had to move to another city for my internship I would automatically add transportation costs to my budget. And if I had a medical or dental problem which required professional help, my medical costs would be at least 3. what they are when I use the campus medical center.

    Third, many students, especially those who have to support themselves, are already borrowing as much as they can. I’m careful to pay all of my bills on time, but just based on assets and liabilities, my credit sits somewhere between “bad” and “radioactive”. I suspect I’m not the only student in this position.

    As I said above, I’m fortunate that my internship comes with a paycheck. I’m also fortunate to have considerable savings from my first career and better living arrangements than many of my classmates. But I can sympathize with students who are having to make some very difficult choices. I’m grateful I don’t have to make them myself.

  111. “3. what they are when I use the campus medical center” should read “3x what they are when I use the campus medical center”

    There are also various and sundry missing conjunctions and prepositions up there. My typing, it is not so good.

  112. Funny this should come up right now… because exactly yesterday, all employees including us grad students were offered to go to a lecture by this guy who successfully started his own company in the field (Chemistry). Not so easy given how you need huge investments for laboratories and such. So he told his success story, and then went on to tell us his thoughts about how to start a business successfully. It went something like this: “Everybody else will tell you to work with the best guys available in your field. And you need them, because they have skills that you need to get the company started. But you should only use them sparsely, because they are expensive. You should mix them with young, enthusiastic people who are willing to work for the learning experience. Then you don’t have to pay them, and you still get the job done. And if you bring them in from abroad, they don’t have a social life, and then they work a lot. This is good.”

    WTH! To say that out loud in the front of all the grad students! Forget about me ever applying for a job with that company. And to make it even more shocking, this is not the US of A (where, as everybody over here knows, workforce is treated like dirt). This is Sweden, a worker’s paradise, where workers’ unions rival the government for strenght, where everybody has unemployment insurance and health insurance payed by the state (ultimately paid for by the companies of course, tax on paying somebody a salary is roughly 40%), where you can’t fire people at will, etc etc. It’s always worse when it goes against your pre-concieved notions, isn’t it.

  113. I had a sweet 4-week teaching observation internship, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. They paid us very well, possibly to woo us into becoming real teachers! But who wouldn’t want to get paid $100 a day to grade papers, watch teachers teach, and chaperone the occasional field trip?

  114. As an engineer I don’t think I even heard hints of any of my classmates being asked to work an unpaid internship. However my wife majored in applied psychology, and I don’t think any of her classmates ever considered that internships could be paid. The only thing that kept me from hitting the roof about her being expected to work for free in a position that required a 4 year degree was that she was getting loan forgiveness for working with disadvantaged children. She was even hired full time after her internship (with crappy pay, it was a non-profit after all) If I recall correctly if she had stayed in that position for 5 years her loans would have been 100% forgiven. So it was unpaid, but not uncompensated.

  115. PJ’s comment (102) about poor kids having fewer opportunities and trust-fundies being in a better position to take an unpaid internship made me realize how lucky I was to be a solidly middle-class kid.

    I was always expected to work for my spending money. Yes, I got a small allowance, but I was encouraged to work for all the stuff that didn’t cover. So I babysat until I was old enough to do other stuff, and then at 14 I started working retail (had to get a special work permit to do that). I worked at Baskin-Robbins, then at the local bank giving away the gift premiums you’d get for opening a new account.

    By the time I graduated college (at 20) I had six years of work experience. (I worked all through college, usually full time, usually close to minimum wage.) True, none of the work had a thing to do with my college degree (languages) or ultimate careers (computer stuff, plus of course running a little indie record label), but I did learn how to show up, do my work, work well with others, organize my tasks, and document my work for others.

    It did, of course, mean a lot less time for teenager stuff, some of which I regret. There were school activities I couldn’t join in because I had to be at work most days after school. But overall, I feel incredibly fortunate that my parents encouraged me (heck, practically required me) to get jobs and pay for things I wanted (like a clunker car to get to work in). In a lot of ways, it gave me a real leg up on other folks my age.

  116. One of my professors stressed that we should never take internships, because our work was worth something. And, he said, you usually don’t want to work for a company that requires an unpaid (or “you pay them”— how messed up is that?) internship. I think that’s good advice.

    With the exceptions of Pixar and ILM. Dude, I’d go for intern there any time. And how would you like your coffee?

    (I managed to get hired six weeks before graduation by overhearing that the radio station we were visiting was shorthanded. Got a letter of recommendation and sent in my resume before the week was out— never hurts to know someone’s desperate.)

  117. @110, MadLibrarian

    We don’t actually have interns who are looking for jobs here after they graduate. They are *all* wanting to go straight to med/grad school, and it will be 10+ years before they’re looking for a job, which is highly unlikely to be in our field.

    When we have people who are actually looking for entry-level jobs here after graduation, what we do is help them find part-time entry-level jobs here for during school/summer, that can transition to full-time after graduation — but those aren’t interns, those are regular employees, with decent salaries and benefits. Out of those, the percentage who go on to full-time work here is pretty high — I’d guess 80% of those who actually want to work here after graduation, closer to 100% some years.

    @113, No the other Scott

    I wasn’t generalizing my post to what it is like for all companies, I was replying to a specific set of posts that were stating that *all* interns should be paid, no matter what, and to do elsewise was unethical. I was attempting to explain — and perhaps not successfully enough — that there are indeed situations in which paying interns does not make sense, and not doing so is not unethical in the least. When interns are actually doing work, I’m all for paying them — see my comment above in this post to MadLibrarian.

    And if an internship is really just a pre-employment training program, then I think it makes sense to pay them then, too — really, it’s equivalent to what the first few months on the job would be. In those cases, the company is still getting a real benefit from the time the intern is spending there, because it’s that much less time the company would have to spend “getting them up to speed” once they are hired. But the reality is that some internships are just drastically different than that.

    Now, we occasionally have interns who come back a year later and are interested in entry-level work — often because they realized while interning here that those sorts of tasks aren’t as “beneath them” as they had previously thought, and that working here is a better deal than babysitting another summer. :p But at that point, they switch from being unpaid interns to being paid interns — paid, because they are doing entry level work, even though they are requiring extra supervision. We only still call them interns because they have no intent on working here after graduation, and it’s useful from a workflow perspective for us to delineate that. In the payroll system, though, they are regular employees, and are paid at the same rate — and the work they are doing is employee work, not intern makework.

  118. I’ve had two internships. The first was paid (minimum wage; 1999; local newspaper). The newsroom editor hired me, gave me a desk, and that was essentially the last I saw of him for the summer. I worked as a full reporter, writing articles for everything from front-page news to back-section special interest. No experience coming in; no guidance; no feedback whatsoever. Had I had any sort of training or feedback or resources while there, I probably could have become an excellent reporter; as it was, I was decent, but mainly just lucky I didn’t disgrace myself. Did I get enough experience in the field to decide it wasn’t for me? Yes. Did I actually gain any knowledge? Debatable.

    My second internship was required to graduate (English; professional writing concentration). A software developer in the extremely small town expressed interest in having me do tech writing, paid, with a strong whiff of employment after graduation. That company waffled for so long that I finally had to look elsewhere in desperation. I ended up at the university career center, unpaid, doing somewhat related work but mainly just sitting around since they were too busy to deal with me. The only reason I was able to do it at all was because it was during my last semester.

    If internships are going to be required, they should be paid and meaningful.

  119. What’s the general feeling about companies that run themselves based on the unpaid labor of interns? I don’t mean simply that they benefit from whatever useful work an intern does, but companies that literally cannot function without interns?

    I’ve been interning for a tiny little publisher for the last month– by tiny little publisher, I mean the company consists of the President and 6 interns, who come and go on three or six month intervals. For the three months before I started, the company published a major title (it’s received a lot of press in the last few weeks) based on the work of a single editorial intern and a design intern, while the President herself was often gone for days at a time in the midst of some nasty personal issues.

    Who thinks that this is ethical? Even if most of the “real” work in the publication process was paid for (editing and design were contracted out to freelancers), the administrative duties of running the company were mostly left to these interns, who did all and more of the duties that an Editorial Assistant would normally be paid for.

    We certainly require supervision, and a paid professional could do our work better–but the fact is that this company could not function without interns. The President literally cannot afford to pay her workers(the Accounting interns told me so)–so she doesn’t; she hires interns.


  120. On the one hand, I totally agree that work should be paid for. And the people who just exploit free interns make me crazy.

    On the other, a number of my clients are small or startup software companies. For them, an software developer intern would be of net negative value; somebody not even done with college will likely soak up more time than they’d contribute in work. When they had cash to spend on an employee, they get somebody who will be actually productive and stick around more than 3 months.

    Although they could never afford a paid intern, the experience for the right person would be fantastic. In a small company, you get to see how a business actually works; in small ones, you see a tiny, often dysfunctional piece of the whole. On a small project, you get to touch real code and have a real influence. Interning with a small, tight team, you’d get a great deal of valuable mentoring.

    I wish I could have had that kind of intership, even unpaid, early on in my career. It would have taught me things that took a long time to figure out.

  121. The “plugging gaps” attitude toward internships (which I think John Sc. is right about) has another problem with it:

    You’re plugging the gaps with unskilled labor. And you’re usually not reviewing their work very much.

    So you end up making work by taking on interns. Either that, or your quality suffers. (But you probably don’t know about it because you’re probably doing QC with interns….)

    I believe this is most likely made worse by not paying them, for a bunch of (I think) obvious reasons: They have to have another “job” to support themselves (mom & dad will only have so much depth to their wallets); they’re liable to start resenting the lack of pay at some point and either sabotage or slack off; and, most insidiously, the fact that you’re not paying them for their labor means you’re not likely to pay someone to mentor them in their labor.

    But it will keep happening until something breaks. (Really, it’s going to have to be a lot of somethings, I think.)

    I think it’s less a case of what the market will bear than it is of what the market can afford to fight.

    (Note, though, that in areas with immediate functional feedback and a real need for skilled workers, like software and engineering — see John Sawyer’s comment — there are well-paid internships. But the differences there are a whole ‘nother thread.)

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