Should You Really Accept An Unpaid Internship?

by Blake Lauren Geary

Internships can be great learning experiences where you get hands-on training from professionals in your field who are grooming you to become the next best thing, all while earning enough money to make rent and occasionally eat something other than ramen.

But those are not the kind of internships I'm talking about. This isn't an argument against internships, but an argument against working for free.

Internships have become practically mandatory for college students and recent college grads, largely because universities offer college credit for them as a way to save a little dough on teaching expenses and push professional experience, all while continuing to rake in those sweet tuition dollars. As degrees become more widely held, the need to set yourself apart from the competition is how the unpaid internship managed to snake its way into the American job landscape and take advantage of an educated, but inexperienced workforce.

There's been a lot written on the unethical nature of unpaid internships and for good reason. in a world where $7.25 is being called a "starvation wage" and the fight for $15 is gaining momentum, young, educated people are falling into unpaid roles in the hopes that they'll lead to something permanent. Something paid.

We tell ourselves these opportunities will translate into jobs or at the very least, provide us with needed experience. How else are we supposed to land the entry-level jobs that demand four-plus years of career-specific experience?

The reality is, these types of internships aren't actually giving us a competitive advantage.

A 2014 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers looked at the correlation between internships and full-time employment post-graduation. and the results were, well ... depressing. Those who completed unpaid internships were hired at almost the same rate as those who chose to forego an internship altogether. Yes, you read that right. Unpaid interns had a 37 percent hiring rate, and those who skipped out on internships for, say, a paying job at Macy's, were hired at 35 percent. Not much of a difference considering you're working for free.

Beyond the fact that unpaid internships don't translate into job opportunities, which is a good enough reason not to take them in the first place, they're also detrimental to the job market. Much like how right-to-work legislation undermines union's collective bargaining power, unpaid interns undermine employee benefits. When an unpaid intern takes a job that would otherwise be filled by a paid employee, it devalues the job. When you do the work of an employee, regardless of your level of experience, you should be compensated as such.

This is illegal, but it's happening largely because internships are unregulated and with unpaid internships, there is no paper trail.

Unpaid interns are also vulnerable to sexual harassment in the workplace because they aren't technically entitled to the same protections under the Civil Rights Act that actual employees are because, well, they're not actually employees. And if you're hoping to eventually be hired, you're not likely going to report inappropriate advances by employees. And if your boss is the one sexually harassing you? Oh, honey.

Unpaid internships are also incredibly detrimental to self-worth. If you're working for someone who pays you nothing, not even the gas money it takes to get to work, you technically aren't worth one dime and that position of inferiority can make you feel used and bitter. If working for $7.25 makes people feel unappreciated or undervalued, imagine what working for free does to your self-esteem.

And by now, we understand that a minimum wage job of $7.25 isn't enough to get by on, so unless you're independently wealthy or your parents' pockets run deep, you can't even consider taking an unpaid internship. You're automatically out of the running. That means these unpaid intern positions are largely going to the children of people with money and affluence. You can't afford to work for free unless someone else is footing the bill.

Employers are promising interns they'll "get to do real work for real clients," but in our eagerness to jump behind the wheel and prove ourselves, we fail to realize that means we'll be doing real work for real, paying clients without being paid. But being that America is the land of capitalism, as long as a steady stream of interns fills the coffers of businesses for nothing, educated youth will continue to be exploited.

Internships can be a great way to test-drive a career before buying, make connections and get real-world, hands-on experience, but it's time to put to bed the outdated notion that unpaid internships pay off in the long run. While you might be tempted to jump into an unpaid internship hoping that it will lead to a job or look good on your resume, the data tells us we're better off skipping unpaid internships altogether and making some money.

Remember, if you're not being paid, your internship must be educational. If your employer makes money off of the work you do, it's illegal. If your job as an intern displaces regular employees, it's illegal. Here's a handy checklist to see if your unpaid internship is legal.