Wouldn’t it be great to work and not be paid for it? The dilemma with unpaid internships.


Does that mean you should or should not take the position?
Image credit: Jeff Howard

McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development recently organised the “Young Professionals in Development Forum“, which invited speakers to talk about how they got to where they are in their careers. One thing that inevitably came up were internships. After the event, I heard a student approach one of the speakers to enquire about whether they felt one should take a “good” internship even if it was unpaid. The answer went something roughly like this:

Aaah… this is a tough one. Ideally, you’d want a paid internship, right? But there aren’t that many out there. So yeah, taking an unpaid internship – it’s sort of inevitable. I know it’s not great, but if you can do it, I would not forego the opportunity.”

A fair answer, perhaps, but not one everybody would agree with: in Why You Should Never Have Taken That Prestigious Internship, Al-Jazeera columnist Sarah Kendzior vehemently criticises unpaid internships:

“In one generation, working for free for people who can pay you went from something laughable, to something wealthy people were doing in a few fields, to something everyone was recommended to do, to something almost everyone has to do.”

Unpaid internships are a salient issue for many students, and any number of my graduate friends have done one of them, including, well, myself. Should we “never have taken that prestigious internship”?

There’s good reason to be angry at unpaid internships. For one, they are seemingly everywhere these days. It’s not just your local charity that asks you to join them for some volunteering in the Summer months. Full-fledged for-profit companies, such as Fox Searchlight Pictures, offer unpaid internships, and government agencies, such as the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, have jumped on the bandwagon, too. Secondly, they are – and that’s the most obvious point of criticism – not accessible to everyone, since they most often involve a net financial loss: moving to wherever the internship is, commuting to work every day, paying for your accomodation… and that’s without taking into account the “opportunity cost” in terms of what other things one could have spent the time on, be it working for actual money, or picknicking in the park. Third, these internships are usually real effort: in a somewhat perverse dynamic, organizations compete for interns via offers of ‘real responsibilities’ and ‘actual job experience’, meaning many internships are structured like entry-level jobs (which they’ve sometimes come to replace) – just not paid.

Given the above, why do people take unpaid interships? Are they the sole path to experience? They’re certainly an interesting path: they offer an insight into organizations we may be passionate about, or we may imagine working for later on. Internships can be an exciting way (or not…) to spend a summer, and if one wasn’t going to do much anyway, why not consider working a bit, even for free? Why not get ahead in the competition for future jobs? And so what if it costs: isn’t it an investment into the future, which will pay off in the long-term? If people go into debt for their education, as is common in North America, then why not do so for a summer work experience in the field you are interested in?

These are certainly part of the reasons unpaid internships are striving. Internships also result from agreements between mutually consenting adults or entities, so nobody is obliged to take an unpaid internship if they don’t want to. And yet, as both the speaker at the ISID forum and Sarah Kendzior point out (though with different conclusions), unpaid internships are, respectively, “sort of inevitable” and “something almost everyone has to do” – if they can, that is.

The sad thing is that some organizations which should get it don’t. The Clinton Foundation offers many internships every year, all unpaid – arguably not so great for a foundation that aims for “systemic change” in one way or another. Nor are they upfront about it, since the website doesn’t mention once that the internships are, actually, unpaid – it’s either assumed, or has to be guessed. Some needs-based stipends exist, but they plateau at $1000 – not enough for three months in New York. Instead, the website states that “If you are a student, we request that you check with your school to see if they offer additional funding for internships.” As it so happens, McGill, via a donor, does offer a $6000 fellowship for an internship with the foundation – a sum which, according to a former fellowship recipient, only just covers your costs. This is not to pick on the Foundation, which like other NGOs faces pressures to demonstrate that they are spending money on “programmes” and not on “staff”, but such a state of affairs doesn’t exactly facilitate social mobility.

Admittedly, I have done an unpaid internship. Fortunately, a substantial award from the McGill Arts Internship Office helped to significantly offset parts (if not all) of the cost. McGill’s award program – open to undergraduates as well as graduates, and available for McGill-brokered as well as independently organised internships – is a great initiative, and a step forward in terms of access, although the question remains whether this simply legitimates not paying students for their work by shifting the financial burden onto universities. Overall, I have not made up my mind about unpaid internships, but it does seem like there are problems with the current situation. As far as Sarah Kendzior is concerned:

I would advocate not taking unpaid positions that support exploitation, but I realize that is an individual decision, and I understand young people often feel they have no choice. […] a collective solution is more viable.

What would a collective solution look like? Well, here’s a productive way to spend your summer: take an unpaid internship. Shoulder the cost. Work hard. Earn your credit. Give the organization their value for the money they are not giving you. Then go and sue them for it. That’s what happened last summer:

A Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled on Tuesday that Fox Searchlight Pictures had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws by not paying production interns, a case that could upend the long-held practice of the film industry and other businesses that rely heavily on unpaid internships.

See here for the brief and interesting article in the NY times, and here for a related debate about whether internships exploit students, or whether they are a win-win arrangement. What do you think?

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