In Defense of Unpaid Internships


Rasmus Anderson

Unpaid internships have a bad reputation, but can provide valuable work experience

Americans have long been brought up understanding the “traditional” educational cycle. You start in preschool and kindergarten, move up to elementary school and junior high, then on to high school and college. Now, for many 20-somethings looking to get a job in their preferred industry, there has been another level added to this cycle: internships.

According to Forbes, many experts believe that the idea of internships descends from the professional apprenticeships that originated with the trade guilds of Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. Fast-forward a few hundred years and that evolved into the roles of “copy boy” or “messenger boy” — even legendary businessman Andrew Carnegie began acquiring his business acumen as an “intern” at a textile company. It wasn’t until the 1960s that modern-day internships began taking shape, both paid, and unpaid.

Many of you probably read that and thought, “Ugh! Unpaid internship!” But don’t scoff. Not only are unpaid internships common, and quite often necessary, but they can also be incredibly beneficial.

A recent National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey found that 48 percent of the polled college students participated in unpaid internships. Of those, 38 percent were at for-profit, private companies. Some of which could surely afford a minimum wage paid intern.

But these companies have to work to hire an unpaid intern.  In order to comply with the Fair Labor Standard Act, employers must satisfy a six-part test administered by the Labor Department. This test requires the internship to be primarily about the education of the student, and not the immediate benefit of the employer. Do some companies go beyond this requirement and take advantage of students? Of course they do. But if the good companies have to do their homework in order to hire you, don’t you think you should do your homework before agreeing to work for them?

It’s quite simple. Find a company that wants to use their resources to help groom talent. One that may have you perform tasks that are to their benefit, but are honest and open about it and properly train and guide you throughout that process. One that will give you projects to work on which you can use as examples of your work in the future. Interns aren’t fetching coffee or licking envelopes as much, if ever, anymore. Interns are, however, applying and diversifying their skillset.

Think of an internship as a class at a remote location with industry professionals as your professors. You learn some of the skills your field requires while in class, but there is something to be said about spending time with professionals in a professional environment. Whether you are being compensated with a paycheck, with class credit, or with nothing at all.

I have both a paid, and unpaid internship. Both are at young, but growing companies with positive, welcoming environments. I got lucky, right? Not so much. I did my homework. I researched these companies, spoke to former interns, met as many employees as possible during my interviews, asked for tours of their office spaces…the list goes on. Do your due diligence and any internship, paid or not, will be worth your while.

Do you scoff at the idea of classes that you pay for? I’d guess not. So think twice before you immediately dismiss the idea of an unpaid internship. You’d be amazed at what you can experience while learning outside of the classroom.