Interns: They’re Always a Mixed Bag – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Leave it to The New York Times to ferret out the dirty little secret of unpaid internships: sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, and sometimes, they are a complete and total waste of time.

Raise your hand if comes as a huge shock and surprise.

There was a bit of a news wrinkle in The Times story — that because of the economy and a lack of jobs, more college graduates are going the unpaid internship route immediately upon graduation — but the rest of it, was, well, what you have probably heard and maybe even experienced before.

Confronting the worst job market in decades, many college graduates who expected to land paid jobs are turning to unpaid internships to try to get a foot in an employer’s door.

While unpaid postcollege internships have long existed in the film and nonprofit worlds, they have recently spread to fashion houses, book and magazine publishers, marketing companies, public relations firms, art galleries, talent agencies — even to some law firms. …

Although many internships provide valuable experience, some unpaid interns complain that they do menial work and learn little, raising questions about whether these positions violate federal rules governing such programs.

Yet interns say they often have no good alternatives. As Friday’s jobs report showed, job growth is weak, and the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was 13.2 percent in April.”

DOL’s wrongheaded attack on internships

The story goes on to detail the problems with unpaid internships, how the U.S. Department of Labor is trying to crack down on them, but that “there is little to stop employers from exploiting interns … (and) unpaid interns are loath to file complaints for fear of jeopardizing any future job search.”

I’ve railed before about what I view as the Labor Department’s misguided and wrongheaded attack on internships, because I count myself among the many, many people who were able to use their unpaid internship as a positive and life-altering experience that helped launch their professional career.

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GIven the current state of the economy, that’s more important now than ever before, and many recent college grads seem to agree.

But don’t take my word for it. On the very New York Times story that almost acts like it “discovered” this new internship problem, an NYT reader by the name of Josh Hill in New London (Connecticut, I’m guessing), had this very succinct  and spot-on comment about the whole unpaid internship issue.

He makes a lot of sense, and I could hardly have put it better myself:

Having worked in the hard-to-break-into entertainment industry, I’ve seen first hand the value of internships. A disproportionate percentage of co-workers got their first real jobs because of the contacts they’d made while working as interns, sometimes at the company that hired them, sometimes not. For them, it was equivalent to the proverbial uncle in the business.

In the real world, even the best-intentioned employer doesn’t have time to play schoolmarm. Even those who had attained a full-time position learned and practiced largely on their own, in the evenings, if they wanted to move up.

While I don’t want to see anyone exploited as free labor, I can’t help but thinking that some of these kids suffer from unrealistic expectations and an inflated sense of entitlement. Whatever happened to “start at the bottom”? An internship is an opportunity to show your stuff, and yes, that can mean working long hours and fetching someone’s lunch. Prospective employers are looking for initiative, ability, and drive, things that are measured poorly if at all by class rank. Interns who demonstrate these qualities will impress; those who sue their employers, well …”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.