July 2nd, 2013
09:32 AM ET

In praise of unpaid internships

By Michael Moroney, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Moroney is the director of communications at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Lawsuits are in vogue this summer as unpaid interns go after their former employers. HearstCondé Nast, and even Gawker are feeling the heat as disgruntled former interns take them to court.

As a recent graduate who used paid and unpaid internships to garner experience and help figure out a career path, I was taken aback by the recent slew of suits. When I was a rising sophomore I started my first unpaid internship at a government relations office Washington, DC. The experience gained and relationships made were worth far more to me than the paycheck I could have made at a normal summer job. My first internship served as a springboard to many other internships – paid and unpaid – that eventually led to the career path I'm on now. The diversity of the internships I completed helped shape my professional skill set and prepared me to compete in an over-saturated job market.

As our modern economy gets more challenging and complex, unpaid internships are an integral part of preparing for the current job market.

As Forbes recently noted, the Supreme Court established nearly six decades ago in Walling vs. Portland Terminal Co. that unpaid internships are legal and exempt from minimum wage laws as long as six conditions are met. These conditions heavily emphasize that the internship is to the benefit of the intern, not the employer. Thus, so long as the intern is aware of, and agrees to, the fact that his internship is unpaid, and the employer approaches the internship with the intention of training the intern rather than just receiving output from him or her, the internship is lawful.

The most important point is that unpaid internships are voluntary, and if an intern feels that the training isn't worth their time, they are free to leave. The inherent frivolity of these lawsuits is that these interns willingly chose to take an unpaid position to further their careers. By trying to extract damages from employers who generously provided a learning experience, they threaten a system that's created opportunities for thousands of students and recent graduates.

Internships also serve as helpful evaluative periods for employers. During a period of supervised training, an employer can evaluate an intern’s professionalism, skill set, and ability to work collaboratively. Characteristics like these are difficult to glean from a resume or interview alone. Internships, therefore, are a low-risk method of giving a potential new hire a more thorough look. Even with entry-level jobs, recruiters prefer tried and tested applicants over a fresh graduate with only a degree.

Unfortunately, in today's fragile economy, the alternative to an unpaid internship is often unemployment, and being unemployed at a young age can have reverberating costs for decades to come.

The most troubling facet of the recent lawsuits isn't the misguided complaints of a few dissatisfied interns, but rather that they could ruin this avenue of opportunity for other aspiring young professionals. Despite the legal outcomes of these cases, the media attention surrounding this issue will surely have ramifications for how companies handle their internship programs – or if they’ll even have them at all.

This probably won't be the end for unpaid internships, but they will certainly dry up in many instances – hurting the young people that need them the most.

Should companies be allowed to use unpaid interns? Are unpaid internships popular in your country? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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Topics: Economy • Youth

soundoff (106 Responses)
  1. Brian

    Just to clear up some misconceptions...

    1. Unpaid internships are not "slave labor." My first unpaid internship was at a hedge fund. Hedge funds generally do not hire inexperienced paid employees. I was lucky to get the position because it gave me experience in an industry that does has virtually zero "paid internships." That opportunity opened doors for me and nobody forced me to do it. I did it because it was smart and in my best interest.

    2. Unpaid internships are mostly unrelated to class or affluence. I came from a blue collar, working class family and did what many people do: a part-time paid position and a part-time unpaid internship. Most people who take unpaid internships are young, have low living expenses, and can afford to take a part-time unpaid position for the experience. The class argument is pretty silly if you ask me. If anything, unpaid internships help people like me break into industries we otherwise wouldn't break into without having serious connections, aka coming from a well connected family.

    3. Unpaid internships generally do not supplant paid positions. I'm co-founder in a tech startup and have no plans to ever hire a paid interns – it wouldn't make sense to pay people who are untested and inexperienced because they're not the best use of company funds. I'm sometimes approached by people who want to work for free to learn what they need to know, build references, and build resumes so they can become skilled and get a job in our industry. I wish I could help them, but the new laws forbids me from doing it. Instead, these people will struggle to find employment because there are not many paid positions for people without references and training.

    4. Unpaid internships often end up being paid. For my second internship, I was able to get a position at a boutique law firm that normally doesn't hire new people because I offered to work for free. They started paying me when they saw that I could do the job. But I never would've gotten the job if I hadn't offered to work for free initially.

    July 2, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  2. acfriedman

    I interned in high school and college. I worked part-time, too, for some semesters in college. All of my unpaid internships left me feeling rewarded. If any failed to be that way, I would have left. Interns have a right to seek payment if their work is equivalent to the work of full-time employees. That's equal pay for equal work. Interns are often used as paralegals, as copy room attendants, as front desk managers, executive assistants, receptionists, and mail room clerks. I know of situations where an unpaid intern trained a full-time employee to do the same job as the unpaid intern.

    That is improper. Internships are for learning, as well as participating in professionals processes that normally require much more experience and education

    July 2, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  3. Lila

    I also did an unpaid internship in college BUT many young people are expected to do it for a very long time instead of an entry level job hoping to get hired. So many companies have outsourced positions that were once entry level that the only ones that are left are these "internships" too. Short term it's a learning experience, long term, pay the interns.

    July 2, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  4. Roger

    You work without pay; meanwhile, you pay a big corporation 7% on your student loan.

    It's a republican bonanza!

    July 2, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  5. aga

    I've done 2 internships in my life, while in college. While I got college credit for doing them, neither internship was worth the time or effort. Neither one taught me anything about the subject I was there to learn about. In both cases, I was used as an unpaid grunt. All I did was files years and years of paperwork for them. One place had an entire room filled with boxes of filing nobody had gotten around to putting away. The other had almost as much, even on chairs. When I had emptied all the boxes and chairs and caught up all their filing, I was told thanks and let go. The only learning I experienced was learning that internships are just free labor for someone else.

    July 2, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  6. old school

    I had an unpaid internship in 1978. I worked a paying a job at night to cover my apartment and food expenses. My internship provided me with a very strong foundation when I started my first job. In fact the company that I was an intern with, were instrumental in helping me find my first salaried position. So I will tell anyone, if you have a chance at an internship, go for it and find a way to make it work. In this world knowledge is power, sometimes you have to be willing to sacrifice to get ahead.

    July 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  7. Michael

    Finally, someone who has the courage to speak out about the value of an unpaid internship. Can we honestly say that students will be hired to work at these companies even at minimum wage without ANY experience? In my opinion the answer is no and in the end it won't be the colleges or the employers who will lose it will be the students.

    July 2, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  8. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    I've hired interns a number of times. I do pay them entry level wages but I've found that many interns are pretty useless in their "field of expertise", since they are studying. They actually cost a company money in terms of lost production due to excessive supervision (supervision they need to learn). The value comes back to a company when an intern shines during their internship and you can hire them after graduation. It also helps build a pool of experienced graduates that now know of your company & will apply for a permanent position.

    July 2, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  9. Shawn

    I have an unpaid high school summer intern right now. I'm putting time into supervision and teaching, and I hope that by the end of 6 weeks he will have produced some work. For me, it's probably a net loss unless he ends up being a superstar or comes back to work for me in the future. But I enjoy teaching, so it's worth it to me. Like the article says, it's a voluntary arrangement.

    July 2, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  10. Yombute

    All you need to know about this article... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin_Center_for_Government_and_Public_Integrity

    July 2, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  11. are122

    Well who knows. Maybe after 30 days some get an unpaid raise.

    July 2, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Reply
  12. altalks21

    In this day & age, internship just contributes to government welfare or worse poverty. It is just another end around denying a person a days pay for a days work.

    July 2, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  13. BakhasD

    I agree with the writer. Although people are somewhat forced into an unpaid internship due to whatever reasons they might have, they have a choice of finding an actual paying internship.
    And becides, while the students, or job seekers are fully aware of the conditions to the unpaid internship, what would be the reason for them to sue the company?
    To add on, in the United States at least the companies are teaching interns about something. I mean.. it is a time worthwihle. However, in a country where I live, which is South Korea, there are a LOT of companies who exploit high-education labor by letting them do their errands. Some interns only sit in front of the copying machine for the whole time! While they get to write another line in their resume that they have "interned" in some fancy company, in reality, they would have gained nothing.
    So, look on the bright side and just be satisfied with the fact that you get to do some real work and actually learn something even though it's an unpaid job.

    July 3, 2013 at 12:40 am | Reply
    • YeMightyAndDespair

      I'm sorry to say, but this describes a lot of unpaid internships in the US as well. Interns are often used to sort mail, answer phones, make copies, and other administrative tasks that don't really teach them anything about the field. On the other end, you have companies that give interns substantive work–essentially replacing their entry-level workforce with unpaid interns. That isn't any better, in my opinion, because it creates a system where you have to be able to work unpaid for awhile if you ever want to get a job in your field. Too many places have interns doing jobs that used to be done by paid employees, and that's just as problematic as making interns make copies.

      September 6, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  14. Abhishek Modak

    Mr Moroney,
    I completely disagree with your assessments and observations. The reason for that is your thoughts and perpective is outdated. In mentioning about your unpaid internships, you forgot to mention the time when you graduated, education was affordable, middle class could afford higher education and moreover internships were very selective. Nowadays, kids are graduating with debt that is going to take away atleast 5-10 years of their life and that too you elitist people want them to work for free. Why? Your argument is the opportunity to gain new experience, but does this mean the interns do not even deserve minimum wage and have to increase more debt to gain experience! On top of that, think like a business, the good companies want to pay their interns to retain them, the smaller companies, businesses can afford little but they need everyone to contribute so interns usually work as much and even harder than employees, so where is the scope of betterment for the intern, also isn't that what training programs are for? Unpaid internships are nothing more than exploitation, and before you make the silly argument of its voluntary, use your common sense, if a business can get a free intern why the hell are they ever going to pay for one. and especially in hard economic times.. This is basic economics, nothing fancy just supply and demand. Interns are not asking for 6 figure salaries, they are just fighting for a minimum wage, so they can afford basic necessities and increasing their debts exponentially. I am surprised how the elitist trivialize anything that does not suite them. Learn from any age in history and you will see whenever the disparity between have's and have not's has increased it has lead to society's downfall. Learn from it and at a very basic level it is economics which even capitalists should understand. You cannot exploit people to no end and expect a prosperous society. You will have prosperous people, but your businesses will suffer. I am a very practical guy, so anyone who graduated 20 years ago and giving these kids advice to use free internships, get this thing first, put yourself in their shoes, average 50k debt, no income, a difficult job market, companies that hoard up cash rather than investing, even outsourcing.. were these things that worse in your day and age. Businesses will always need interns and even at minimum wage these interns will be cost effective for most businesses. I do want to give the contributor the benefit of doubt, maybe they are writing this out of their ignorance and not indifference, because that would be a shame.

    July 3, 2013 at 1:24 am | Reply
  15. Abhishek Modak

    I say lets start an "free internship" program for businesses.. any business or company has to provide free services to the government, city, state whatever before they win contracts related to Energy, Defense, Infrastructure, services, etc.. lets see the companies line up after that! All the Capitalist will go shock and awe on this one! Government is becoming socialist, there will be no growth, services will suffer!! hehehee.. any thoughts Mr Moroney?

    July 3, 2013 at 1:35 am | Reply
  16. EbonyDelite

    And with all this said and done... just get me a latte and shut the f*** up!

    July 3, 2013 at 9:10 am | Reply
  17. Really?


    July 3, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  18. anticlassaction

    Well said Mr. Moroney, internships are voluntary, take it or leave it. Those who want to abolish all unpaid internships should consider doing it by having the interns pay their companies for providing these great learning and resume building experiences for them.

    July 4, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  19. Barbara

    "By trying to extract damages from employers who generously provided a learning experience"

    I would be weary of making this statement. The fact of the matter is that many employers do not provide a learning or mentorship experience for their interns. Instead, employers turn to "on the job" training, where interns are thrown into the organization's daily operations and are doing the exact same work that a paid employee would be doing and thus, directly profiting off of the intern's free labor while displacing paid employees.

    "Unfortunately, in today's fragile economy, the alternative to an unpaid internship is often unemployment, and being unemployed at a young age can have reverberating costs for decades to come."

    Unpaid internships are now the new entry-level position which is why, as you mention, if a young person does not take on such an internship their only other option is unemployment. Where have these entry-level positions gone? There seems to be a correlation with the growth in unpaid internships and the decline in entry-level positions. Unemployment is costly, but so is wage theft – so, which is worse?

    The problem I have with the arguments that are made by individuals who are pro-unpaid internships is that they continue to push the idea that internships are "useful" and they can "provide useful job experience". In some cases yes, definitely. But in actuality that isn't even the key issue – we are not only looking at whether unpaid internships are useful or not but rather, do they warrant that employers pay their interns minimum wage? Are employers exploiting young people? Are they taking advantage of the abysmal job market and sucking every bit of free labor they can get? These are the internships that are problematic.

    With growing student debt and unpromising job prospects, something has to be done. Many young people cannot afford to work for free and to be honest, why should they? Older generations would look at us and say "suck it up, work for free, we volunteered back in our day" – times are different. Household debt is at an all-time high. Students are drowning in their own debt. Unemployment is not getting better.

    Whatever happened to making the world a better place for future generations? Why can't generations of all walks of life support the generations who are trying to break into the job market and contribute to the economy?

    July 5, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
  20. Bill

    If the internship was used as intended which is to provide much needed experience and training fine. However, I have personally witnessed where the intern is used to re-fill the soap dispenser in the rest room so the company doesn't have to hire janitorial services. It is true that intern can quit but how does he account for the month, year etc of wasted time since once he quits he/she cannot ever use that company as a reference. Six conditions may have been mandated by the court but I have yet to see a company follow them or any government agency enforce them.

    July 5, 2013 at 11:31 am | Reply
  21. Dustin H.

    Who has the privilege to work an unpaid internship?

    If I'm a broke college student, I barely have time to study and go to work at a near full time paying job.

    The problem I have with unpaid internships is that companies who offer them are essentially allowing only the wealthy to apply.

    July 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  22. Amanda

    I disagree with the author of this article. I am currently working full time as an unpaid intern in DC in a position that I know for a fact is paid for during the summer and winter, when PhD students are usually hired to do my job. I love my job and I wouldn't trade it for the world, but I honestly believe it is fundamentally wrong to ask someone to work full time for no pay. If the internship were only one or two days a week, that would be a different story. But working full time is a real commitment to the business and therefore, an intern ought to at least receive a stipend to cover food and housing.

    I am lucky that my parents can afford to pay for my summer. But they shouldn't need to. Most of the other interns I know will leave this summer with no or very little money left in their bank accounts. Another fellow intern had to apply for scholarships during the semester, when she should have spent her time focusing on studying. She instead had to panic over whether or not she was going to be able to do her internship. I have very much enjoyed my internship opportunity and I am very glad that I was able to afford it. But it is grossly unfair to expect someone to work full time for free. Logically, it makes no sense. If your boss came to you and said, "hey, I'd like you to do your exact same job that you do now, but for nothing," would you think that was right?

    Like I said, my internship experience has been great. I just think that full time interns deserve some kind of monetary pay to cover most of if not all basic living expenses.

    July 27, 2013 at 12:15 am | Reply
  23. Mehak Khakhu

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    August 6, 2013 at 4:46 am | Reply
  24. YeMightyAndDespair

    "The experience gained and relationships made were worth far more to me than the paycheck I could have made at a normal summer job."

    Translation: I had someone else supporting me and didn't have to worry about paying my living expenses, so I could afford to work unpaid.

    Unpaid internships are making economic mobility even harder for millenials. In a world where you are expected to work multiple internships before graduating from college, and are often expected to work internships after graduating before being hired, it's the poor and lower-middle-class who are penalized. Those with wealthy parents who are willing to support them can afford to do internships every summer and build their résumés, but most can't.

    Internship culture is making it harder and harder for the economically disadvantaged to succeed, no matter how gifted and hardworking they are. The idea of the hardworking poor student who works their way through college will soon be a myth; it's almost impossible now to work your way through a decent 4-year university without walking away with a mountain of debt. Now add to that the expectation that you must also fit in time to work unpaid. "Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" in that situation is just unrealistic.

    Unpaid internships may be a great opportunity for some people. But they're an opportunity that the vast majority of students, however qualified, can't take advantage of without adding to their debt. I did a lot of internships during school–I was lucky to have parents who could and would support me through months of unpaid work. I was lucky I had my tuition paid for me so I didn't need to work to cover it. Internships were good for me, but they are a bad trend for our society.

    September 6, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • Kristen

      Thank you!!!! This article and most of the other comments are full of it! They obviously had support from their parents so that they could afford to work an unpaid job. That was then. This is now.
      I am a current unpaid intern and they work me to the BONE. All I do is clerical work and I haven't gained any experience or connections and I work as much as I would a part time job! It's free labor! I am also the college student who doesn't have enough time in the week for a part time job, an unpaid internship, and school. The part time job at least gets me food! But nobody wants to hire someone who has to go to school either! Employers want FULL availability or you don't get the part time job that keeps you fed or pays for books! And it's expected that I do well in school?! Our parents have NO idea how bad this is for us.

      September 16, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Reply
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