Unpaid internships are (usually) valuable


The New York Times recently ran an article about the value — or lack thereof — of unpaid internships. Although they have been around for awhile, unpaid internships have recently begun to cause widespread discontent, largely due to two facts: First, they often involve getting coffee, and second, even if they don’t involve getting coffee, potential employers frequently assume they involve getting coffee, and most of these employers aren’t looking for baristas.

According to the Times, “A 2011 survey found that 61 percent of students who worked in a paid internship were offered a job when they graduated, compared with 38 percent of students who took an unpaid position.” Unfortunately, many employers — and society, in general — view salary as a measure of someone’s work; the unpaid intern contributes less to the company than the paid intern, or so the belief goes.

Thus, unpaid interns seek revolution. In Europe, organizations have sprung up to protest the system. In the United States, many unpaid interns have filed lawsuits against their employers, demanding to be reimbursed for what some compare to slave labor. The general rule is as follows: If the intern does work equal to that of a salaried employee, then that intern must be paid. Unpaid internships must benefit the intern more than they do the company. In fact, the company can receive no immediate advantage from having unpaid interns; rather, unpaid interns might even impede the company.

The various lawsuits that have sprung up throughout the country — and around the world, as The New York Times explained — have forced companies to be more careful when it comes to interns. Unfortunately, the result isn’t always positive for the intern. If they have to pay their interns, companies are likely to hire fewer, which heightens competition and makes the hunt for good internships that much more difficult.

Of course, not every company is so cautious, which sometimes puts unpaid interns in an awkward position. With the job market so competitive, would-be interns are forced to question whether the value of having any internship on a resume outweighs the potential unfairness. Then there’s the confrontation aspect: Does an unpaid intern ask for pay and thereby risk losing the internship to someone who doesn’t mind working for free?

My answer: It depends.

As an unpaid intern myself, I’m personally offended that potential employers might find my work less valuable. However, if I were to stumble across a paid internship that’s equally relevant to my future career as the one I currently have, I’d be reluctant to accept it. Why? Because of that key word we hear so much from the Sherman and Gloria H. Cohen Career Center: networking.

Even though I work for free, I’ve built valuable relationships with my employers and their clients. I also have the opportunity for advancement within the company. No, I don’t get paid, but, to sound truly cheesy, these relationships and opportunities will be far more valuable than money in the long run.

Not all unpaid interns are as fortunate as I am. Some employers may remain distant from their interns, and although they may still write letters of recommendation, the networking aspect might not be as strong as would be ideal. And if the intern does work equivalent to that of a salaried employee, he or she should probably be paid.

The field of work also determines whether interns are paid: Predictably, business interns generally get the big bucks — and by big bucks, I mean bucks — whereas those in publishing and media tend to get zilch.

In a perfect world, all interns would be paid, for when we do internships we give up time that could be spent working a wage job. Instead of summer employment, we seek out internships; thus, we’re perpetually stuck in the realm of the “broke college student.”

Email Samantha Farkas at sbfarkas@email.wm.edu.