I don’t accept unpaid internships, and neither should you.
What’s the point of an unpaid intern? To some, the unpaid internship has been romanticized into a rite of passage for college students, a first foray into the corporate world that, through coffee runs and menial tasks, will ostensibly lead to a successful career. Though you can spin all sorts of metaphors and life lessons out of getting a boss’s coffee order right, the reality is that learning by working on projects that matter is what builds skills that make you desirable and hirable after college.
Let’s first start off by examining the student’s point of view on this matter:
If you offer me an unpaid internship, food, housing, and transportation adds up to thousands of dollars I’m shelling out over the summer for the privilege of providing free labor. It doesn’t make great financial sense, regardless of whether one can afford to do it or not, and quite frankly it’s insulting. I believe that I can contribute to and generate value for a company, and I also believe that the time and effort I put into generating that value is worth something.
If you try to offer me “compensation” in the form of a few college credits, please understand that I don’t want them, I don’t need them, and I actually can’t accept them. Since the Stanford Economics department doesn’t accept internship experience as college credit, you really aren’t offering me anything besides an unpaid internship. While college credits may be worth something to other applicants, requiring interns to accept college credit as payment for their labor means that people in the same boat as me are excluded from helping your company grow.
Furthermore, recent research shows that a paid internships are far more likely to lead to an offer upon graduation than an unpaid internship, and are correlated with better salaries. According to a 2015 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, interns at private, for-profit businesses who were paid had a 72% chance of getting a job offer post-graduation, versus 44% of unpaid interns in the same category. Likewise, the median starting salary offer for paid interns in their first job was $53,521, compared to a significantly lower $34,375 for the starting salary offer of students who previously took unpaid internships. Most notably, the median starting salary offer of students who had no previous internship experience was actually higher than that of unpaid interns at $38,572. If people with no internship experience earned a higher starting salary than those with unpaid internship experience, what’s my incentive to take an unpaid internship?
On the flip side, let’s consider the employer’s point of view. Thanks to recent court rulings and crackdowns on illegally employing unpaid interns to do tasks that replace paid employees, the risk of incorrectly designating interns as unpaid has increased. Furthermore, if the point of having interns is to recruit future employees, then you’re not securing the best talent out there. Without paying adequate wages, you eliminate a wide swath of the applicant pool who can’t afford to spend the summer working for free; of the people who can afford this, the best talent will be picked up by competitors who adequately pay them for the work they do.
One final point of consideration: if you aren’t even willing to pay an intern minimum wage, what does that say about how you treat your employees? If you can’t (or won’t) pay me now, what’s the likelihood that you’re going to pay me a fair salary as a full-time employee in the future, when I’m finalizing my career choices after graduation? Great interns cost money, but if you show them loyalty and respect early on you’re building connections that create long-term success for your company.
Over the past three summers, I have worked at four companies as a paid intern. In addition to the great mentors I found, and valuable skills gained in analytics, marketing, and business development, receiving a paycheck every couple weeks demonstrated to me that I am valued, and that the effort I put in every day is valuable.
Whether you’re in the position of student or employer, never settle for unpaid internships. The mutual benefits and goodwill gained from the experience of a paid internship are worth it.