by Dan D., 8/10/16

I was listening to The Best Show this morning when host Tom Scharpling made mention of guest comedienne Mary Houlihan’s acting role as an intern on Difficult People and decided to indulge my disgust for that word by Google-searching (using the “verbatim” feature) “unpaid internships are stupid”.

As Google is head-scratchingly wont to do, I was presented with the opposite of what I was looking for: a horde of unpaid internship apologists jerking themselves off about their favorite exploitation fetish. This piece seemed the closest to what I was looking for, though it presents plenty of “reasons” for taking an unpaid internship.

I proceeded to engage in my own self-destructive fetish and scanned the comments section for any defenders of the unpaid internship to try to get a feel for why they believed what they did. Is there any hard data backing their belief? Anything beyond a half-formed opinion and a selfish desire to have others share in the same misery they did?

Sure enough, I found a few people who decided to chime in with their thoughts. “Well, I had an unpaid internship, and it was highly beneficial to my career”. Some joker—anonymous except for the moniker “freeby50”, of course, so very brave—even chimed in to criticize a widely-circulated survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers cited in the article that found unpaid internships often led to lower starting salaries for graduates than their paid counterparts. Troll’s criticism was (and I’m paraphrasing here) “duh, they didn’t control for major ::drool::” and “unpaid internships are in fields where there is keen competition and few jobs thus the supply of people willing to work for free”.

Now, while I think we should be critical of surveys and studies—we must be critical of EVERYTHING that comes our way, after all—we should also be critical of counter-arguments, and I’m afraid this one has a few flaws. First, I found a Forbes article which notes that Elite Models lost a lawsuit requiring them to compensate former interns for their work. Fashion is one of the industies that whines it can’t pay interns for their work. Looks like this particular fashion company had to in the end there.

Listen, MBA-wannabe-troll-guy, I understand how supply and demand works. I can understand how industries like fashion and publishing are saturated with people dying to become the next Michael Kors or Jhumpa Lahiri. That doesn’t make it OK for for-profit employers to be allowed to exploit people for their benefit. Don’t give free labor to a company whose end game is to maximize profits just to “get to know people” and “show them what you can do”.

The expectation—read this VERY carefully, as I am specifically talking about the EXPECTATION here—that you’re going to get assigned substantial work, meet people who can help advance your career, and be liked enough for future employment consideration during the course of an unpaid internship in your field of choice is absurd. Is it possible that you will achieve things as an unpaid intern and get a leg up on your career? Sure. However, you are just as likely to end up fetching coffee for an egotistical jerk, ignored by your co-workers, and getting no help whatsoever during your job search.

If you’re going to work for free, at least help out an organization that is trying to address social inequities. If you want to break in to a highly competitive career track but can’t find a for-profit employer who will provide you with a paid internship, you should look for a similar volunteer opportunity at a local non-profit. There are no shortage of organizations seeking to serve communities in need that could use your willingness to work for free to benefit of marginalized populations. You’ll likely enjoy the freedom of a flexible schedule, a non-demanding supervisor, will get to meet mission-driven colleagues from all walks of life, and will endear yourself to an organization at which you may be able to leverage a paid position in the future.

Rant aside, here is some actionable advice for you folks considering pursuing unpaid internships:

  • Examine the credentials of anyone or any by-line-less blogger who is trying to sell you on the idea of an unpaid internship. What perspective are they arguing from? What are the potential flaws in their argument? Do they stand to benefit from you taking an unpaid internship, i.e. are they writing as a member of a dying industry desperate to keep their job?
  • Research local non-profits offering similar opportunities in a volunteer context. Volunteers generally obtain great hands-on experience accomplishing tasks. Get in touch with the volunteer coordinator in charge of the position. Find out what the time commitment and expectations are, and get info about how this role would help the organization. Volunteer opportunities can be vetted just like jobs, so you’ll want to make sure your role equips you with the skills you’re looking for and is integral to the operation of the organization.
  • If you’re going to go through with an unpaid internship, find out why the organization can’t pay someone to do the job. Here’s your chance to Spotlight the whole unpaid internship plague. See if you can find out if the company you’ll be working at’s claims of not being able to pay people to do the work of entry-level staff are legitimate. Are you answering phones because a major contract wasn’t renewed and layoffs had to be made, or are you doing admin work because the CEO/CFO is a cost-cutting cheapskate and thinks he/she can get away with using you for free labor? Be observant, talk to people in the office, and take notes. You might not be gaining any valuable skills, but you’ll learn a hell of a lot about the way certain businesses operate and will be able to spot a bad workplace from a mile away for future reference—a highly underrated skill unto itself.