The dark side of working for free

An intern at work. Via Flickr user U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive).

An intern at work. Via Flickr user U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive).

Millions at this moment are working full-time without pay.

I’m talking, of course, about unpaid internships, which is a topic of conversation again with a recent lawsuit.

Almost half of the internships that the college class of 2012 took were unpaid, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Though I’m graduated now, in order to get my editor job, I did five internships. The only was that was paid was a news writing internship where I received about $25 per story.

I’m grateful for all of my internship experience, but after all of that, I can say the system is unfair.

A Philadelphia magazine writer says in an opinion piece that he began as an unpaid intern at the magazine while he was on unemployment after being fired from a non-journalism job. Though the writer admits that he was lucky to get the internship and earn money from unemployment, he goes on to say that unpaid interns need to stop complaining.

“Of course, not everyone gets a job or winds up doing amazing things after an internship. In some cases, that’s just life,” he writes. “But in some cases–in many of them–it’s because the interns are incompetent, disengaged or unwilling to learn.”

So if you didn’t get a wonderful gig after an internship, it’s because you were incompetent?

It’s easy to say that people need to pay their dues by taking on an unpaid internship. It’s just the way you get started in an industry. It provides valuable work experience that will help you land a job later.

Though internships are integral to finding full-time employment post-grad, let me tell you about the other side of unpaid internships — the darker side.

  • Interns can’t support themselves. Many unpaid internships require interns to move to another location, which entails moving and living expenses. All those great New York internships? You need to get an apartment there too. Many interns end up paying thousands to work for no money. By the time the summer is gone, so is the balance of their checking account.
  • Companies use internships as entry-level jobs. That means that those companies won’t hire newly-minted graduates because the entry-level jobs are already filled by unpaid interns. Why would a company want to hire a graduate and pay for a salary plus benefits when an intern will do the work for free?
  • Not every company will hire interns after they graduate. You hear about the rare stories where former interns work for the company after they get their diploma. That Philadelphia writer had such luck. But many times, that doesn’t happen. Interns are only offered jobs half of the time, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers study.

Though my unpaid internships have given me clips, contacts, and open doors, they have sometimes let me down. I once had an internship where the manager told me I would receive $50 to $75 for every story. But after completing two stories, she informed me that there would be no payment since I was an intern. I was furious with the manager’s lying, but I continued working for the company because I needed the experience.

Another time, I showed up on my first day of an internship in my hometown only to be told that the company required that I take the internship for class credit. After some research, I realized taking the unpaid internship for one hour of class credit would cost me about $1,000. I pleaded with the company to let me take the unpaid internship for experience, but a few hours after I walked in for my first day, I was forced to quit because I couldn’t pay a grand to work for free.

I understand that an unpaid internship won’t pay salary plus benefits, but it needs to offer something. The better ones give a stipend for living expenses. I’ve even found a few that put interns up in an apartment. All of these offerings make it easier and fairer for cash-strapped students.

Students are told again and again that they are adults and that an internship is step into the working world.

So why aren’t those students paid like adults?

  1. safia said:

    This is an eye-opening piece for me. I hate to see people being taken advantage off like this and recently posted a link to an article about Adjunct positions in higher education in my ‘Rejection’ blog. Both internships and adjunct positions are ways of getting quality workers for the minimum return. Expecting interns to pay for a move to a different city and no help with living expenses? That’s plain exploitation. Great blog – thanks.

    • Thanks for reading! Unpaid internships at for-profit companies can get ridiculous.

  2. reportschick said:

    Yes, there are dark sides to working for free, but I have to disagree with the notion that they are replacing entry level jobs. As your statistic mentions, “almost half” of the internships offered are unpaid. That would mean that the other half are paid. Therefore, for every unpaid internship, there is a paid one. It’s up to the individual to choose which type of internship is right for them.

    And I really agree with this sentiment:
    “Of course, not everyone gets a job or winds up doing amazing things after an internship. In some cases, that’s just life,”

    However, I wouldn’t say that those who don’t get jobs are “incompetent,” but I would say unmotivated or undedicated. I find it hard to believe that the type of person who would take an unpaid internship would just try and coast by without putting forth 110%. Although, at my own unpaid internship, I saw people do just that.

    I thought to myself, “This is an opportunity to show the professional world what I’ve got. If I do it well, I’ll never have to worry about working for free again.” And I haven’t, nor will I — at least not at a commercial media outlet.

    As I mention in my most recent blog post (, it comes down to choice. You don’t have to take an unpaid internship if you don’t want to. And after you’ve participated in one, in the assumption that you showed your stuff, you shouldn’t do it again. To me, one unpaid internship is just an essential rite of passage. If for whatever reason you’re participating in more than one unpaid internship, then you’re not doing it right.

    • I don’t think it’s up to the individual as much as it’s up to the industry. For instance, journalism (and I believe the arts) use unpaid internships a lot more frequently than, let’s say, business or science. I imagine the statistic would change if it just concentrated on journalism, writing, and arts internships.

      Also, it depends on where you intern. One of the places I interned at used almost exclusively unpaid interns to produce its content. A newspaper I interned at was failing. A magazine I was at only employed freelancers. Some of these places that offer unpaid internships don’t have full-time jobs to offer. I’ve definitely seen some unmotivated interns, but that’s not true for many students. I was dedicated to my internships, but none of them panned out into full-time jobs.

      I think some of the recent lawsuits get a little ridiculous because — like you say — you know that an internship is unpaid when you take it (barring my experience with the internship that was advertised as paid, and then my boss refused to pay me). Yet I know people who have done multiple unpaid internships. It’s great if you can get something paid, but that’s not always possible; it’s not because “you’re not doing it right.”

      • reportschick said:

        I don’t think it matters who is to blame for the proliferation of unpaid internships, whether it be the industry or the individual.

        In any industry — that’s not a “McJob” — you’re going to work for free at some point.

        My main point is that you have a choice on whether or not to intern for free at a place that could be using you in lieu of a full-time employee. Also, just so I’m not being misunderstood, even if you choose to take the unpaid internship and work your fingers to the bone, there’s no guarantees to a full-time job offer from that company. What I’m saying is that — depending on your clips/coverage — it should give you a significant boost in the professional job market towards another full-time job (I’d include freelancing into that because it’s paid work).

        So, “by doing it right,” I mean adequately using the unpaid internship as a resource to effectively build your resume. When I did my unpaid internship at Creative Loafing, I walked away with enough quality clips to prove the value of my professional work and because of that I’ll choose to never take another unpaid internship again in the future.

        I was also fortunate enough to be able to continue writing stories for CL on a freelance basis after my internship had ended. I think once you start getting paid for your work, you shouldn’t go in the opposite direction.

      • I agree that you shouldn’t need to work unpaid again, but that’s not always the case. Yes, of course, unpaid internships aren’t worthless. If they’re good, they provide clips, experience, and contacts. I’m just saying that for all that, you should be compensated. I had an internship that paid me per story. It wasn’t much money, but it made me feel more like one of the fellow reporters. It was like the internship was saying, “You’re an adult too.”

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