Think You’re Helping Students With Unpaid Internships? Think Again

I’ve never been a fan of unpaid internships and I’ve never been with a company that has offered them (at least on my watch). People who work for the benefit of the company (and I’d argue that most internships are structured that way) deserve to be paid, at least minimum wage.

A company that pulls in a decent profit can’t afford to pay an intern minimum wage for 5-10 hours a week? Spare me the excuses. If that’s really the case, you already can’t afford interns, even if you don’t pay them at all.

Still, people who reluctantly defend unpaid internships always go back to the old tired defense of this practice: any internship, even an unpaid one, is better than nothing. It helps these students out and gets them experience, even if they don’t get a paycheck. Hard to argue against that.

But does that unpaid experience really help them get a job? According to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, that answer is an emphatic no.

Unpaid internship reality

A post last week on The Wall Street Journal’s At Work blog covered the survey. The results are pretty clear:

The group released a study this week showing that 60 percent of 2012 graduates who worked a paid internship got at least one job offer, while just 37 percent of those in unpaid gigs got any offers. That’s slightly – only slightly – better than the offer rate for graduates who skipped internships entirely, at 36 percent.

Unpaid internships are ubiquitous. A 2010 survey from NACE found that nearly 95 percent of member schools allow organizations to post unpaid internship opportunities, and less than a third of those require students to earn academic credit or some form of certificate for their work. Intern Bridge, a recruiting research and consulting firm, found that more than half of internships reported for its 2011 Internship Salary Report were unpaid.”

So paid internships are not only better because you get paid by a company instead of exploited because you’re hard up for experience, but also, because it will help you actually get a job offer out of college? Not only that, having an unpaid internship is barely (and I mean barely) better than having no internship at all.

What excuses are left?

I don’t know the reasoning behind the substantial difference in the success of paid versus unpaid internships and NACE’s survey didn’t go into that detail. If I can speculate for a moment though, I do believe companies on a de facto basis treat paid staff (even minimally paid staff) differently than unpaid employees.

If an unpaid intern doesn’t do anything during their internship, it isn’t any skin off your back as an employer. With a paid employee, even a temporary one, there is an expectation of both learning and application. And if they are sitting back all day, swigging coffee and watching YouTube videos, you’ll probably be a lot less tolerant of that.

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That’s not to say that there aren’t some terrific unpaid internship opportunities out there. I know of a few companies that coordinate heavily with college career centers for credit and actually put these students through rigorous training. They use it as a serious testing ground for new recruits.

A little pay — and greater expectations

But that’s not the norm and we should stop pretending that it is.

Being paid is closest to a true employment experience as anything. While paid interns might get more leeway than normal staff, there is still an expectation of interns to learn, grow and execute on what they learn.

They will get an opportunity to create something of value for an organization (something you literally can’t do under current unpaid internship rules) and get a check for it. It won’t be big but if that experience is better respected (and results in a significantly better chance of getting a job after graduation), maybe it is time for students to hold out for the money.

And if employers really care about their interns and their future job prospects, they’ll pay them.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.