Journalism / Life Lessons

All Work, No Pay: The War on Unpaid Internships and Three Students Experiences With Them

There’s a booming discussion in America about the fairness and legality of unpaid internships. This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for quite some time, and as we approach the end of the academic school year, internship season begins.

With the job market slowly recovering, many recent graduates, and some experienced professionals, are forced to take the first opporunity that comes along, which is likely to be an internship. Unfortuantely, many of the internships offered are unpaid, and these young professionals must wrestle with the dilemma of either gaining valuable (albeit unpaid) experience in their field-of-choice, or working for pay in a non-related field (McDonalds for instance), and waiting for an opportunity in their field-of-choice, while gaining no more relevant experience.

I’ve always genuinely believed in these three statements regarding unpaid internships:

1. They are financially irresponsible for a student to take, especially when they involve relocating away from home.

2. You’ll never get a company’s best effort toward your development if they don’t have capital at stake.

3. If you ABSOLUTELY MUST take one, it should never be more than 10-15 hours per week to allow for other part time employment.

Admittedly, those beliefs came before looking at both sides of the argument, and since then I’ve done my research. For anyone not familiar, a quick Twitter search for “unpaid internships” brings up a gold mine of reading material on the subject from both pro and anti unpaid internship advocates. A few good reads include:

America is Raising a Generation of Interns -Anti

Are Unpaid Internships Worth the Effort?-Anti

Are Internships Worth It?-Pro

Unpaid internships can pay dividends when it comes to finding a job after graduation-Pro

To get some first-hand insight about working as an unpaid intern, I recently had the pleasure of chatting with three recent college graduates about their experiences with unpaid internships, their thoughts on the practice, and whether they would accept one again.

Nathan Kopp, 23, Operations Coordinator (U.S. Olympic Committee). Chula Vista, CA

Internship Experience: Athletics Marketing Intern

On his job duties:

“My job description was not specific, but my duties included helping with marketing game day operations for all sports. During athletic events, we were responsible for the setup and supervision of fan areas (tailgate), in game promotions (t shirt toss, on field promos etc.), and any game specific marketing strategies (alumni gatherings). I also was assigned several office hours per week to help with grass roots marketing.

During my internship, I had to do a lot of “grunt work” such as putting flyers on cars and miscellaneous paperwork. These tasks were necessary for the athletic department to function, but definitely not appealing or specifically related to my area of study.”

On “paying his dues”:

“I don’t believe I have met anyone in the sport industry who landed a paid internship/job without prior experience through unpaid internships or volunteering. Our professors made it clear to us that it is very difficult to get your foot in the door, and you must work for free at first to make it.”

On the usefulness of his unpaid internship:

I do not feel I was given enough opportunities for professional development. It was my first sport related job for my resume, but I feel I did not learn much at all. However, I have completed several internships since and they have been very beneficial.”

Matt Ostrow, 22, Marketing Intern (unpaid) Houston Astros Baseball Club. Houston, TX

Internship Experience: Game Day Intern, St. Paul Saints Baseball Club,

On deciding to take an unpaid internship:

“In sport management almost all of the internships tend to be unpaid so it was something I was expecting. The experience was worth it and I believe I worked just as hard as if I would have been paid.”

On coping without pay:

“It was part time, but I did other small jobs. For the most part I had to have money saved up.”

Kelsey McCormick, 24, New Media Coordinator at SmartFinds Internet Marketing. Clinton Township, MI

Internship Experience: Staff Writer, Michigan Preps/Rivals | Writer, Editor, Social Media Manager Her Campus

On deciding to take an unpaid internship:

“It was a requirement in my major that you completed a semester long unpaid internship. After I completed my first one, I felt the experience was great and if there were more opportunities I should take advantage of them. I believe in my field it would have been unheard of to find something paid, so there was no hesitation in accepting an unpaid opportunity.”

On coping without getting paid during her internship:

“I was working a paid position while completing my internships. My schedule did not change with my regular job, I just became busier outside of work. For the  last two years of college, I was a full time student, worked for the university  17-20 hours, and worked unpaid internships…”

On the usefulness of her unpaid internship:

“…the experiences were tough, but definitely worth it. I see my peers graduating with  no experience and it makes me glad that I put in the extra effort to gain real world experience while in school. My resume has experience that is relevant to my field, which I believe put me a step ahead of everyone else during the post-graduation job search.”

Matt Bruenig recently wrote, “As more and more people get degrees, the credentials necessary to get good jobs rise higher and higher…as the overall level of credentialing increases, unpaid internships are a natural outlet to expand the credentialing arms race.”

Going forward, it would be beneficial if those credentials didn’t cost the employees so much, and cost companies a little more.


One thought on “All Work, No Pay: The War on Unpaid Internships and Three Students Experiences With Them

  1. Ah, to be an unpaid intern. With my experiences I can say that I did learn quite a bit but it wasn’t all good. I agree with the comment that if the company doesn’t have any capital at stake they will not put forth as much effort to their unpaid interns. I have experienced this and have felt a bit cheated out of some otherwise prosperous opportunities.

    Another thing that I have had trouble with is the embellishment of these internship positions available. Many of them are more secretarial or administrative work than actual industry work. I felt that I had to go too far out of my way to get any type of responsibility other than the menial grunt work. I do understand that one must create opportunities but if I have to make every opportunity up myself and have to base my experiences less of what of what my senior management was teaching me and more on just guessing, it’s almost a waste of time.

    I also feel that an internship is when these companies are supposed to be teaching you so that when you do get that first position those companies won’t have to worry about training.

    This is based on my experience only and many people would say otherwise. Depends on the position, company and so much else. Great post Rob.

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