Unpaid Internships

28 Aug

Pictured: average intern's salary

Following up on Leslie’s post regarding her experience with The Onion, I thought I would throw in my unsolicited two cents regarding internships.

Let me first be straight with you, dudes and lady dudes: I’ve never had an unpaid internship.  I was a paid employee of Teach For America last summer, and a camp counselor in summer 2008.  And before that, I helped my family move from Upstate NY to Florida in-between my freshmen and sophomore years of college.  So I really can’t speak as to why internships suck in practice, I can only speculate as to why they would suck in theory. And I’ve speculated so hard.

I’ve refused to apply to internships, both in the past and as a grad, because I take issue with the fact that a company will make me clamor for the right to work for free, without any guarantee of securing the right to work for free.  Rather than wonder what credential or personality trait I’m missing that renders me incapable of making copies, I avoid the ego-bruising altogether by totally ignoring unpaid internships when they turn up in my job search results.

However, my main issue with unpaid internships concerns respect.  If you’re going to be benefiting from whatever I contribute to your company, however small or menial, I deserve compensation.  I’m not doing you a favor.  I’m completing a task that would otherwise be done by employees on your payroll.   To not pay me is disrespectful to my time, and indicates to my uninformed little brain that your company doesn’t value me enough to throw even a couple bucks my way for bus fare.  It comes down to principle: I work hard, you give me something in return.  Minimum wage, living stipend, lunch money, anything to make me feel less like a cheap secretarial-messenger whore. (WHOA. Naughty word.)

“But Sarah!” you’re probably saying, “Unpaid internships are valuable because you get experience, which will in turn get you hired, and that counts as your payment! CHA-CHING.”  Oh.  Okay.  So, promises act as currency now?  Well, apparently I don’t need a job, because over the years, I have accrued millions of dollars in Promises from my family.  “Sure Sarah, we can go to Disneyworld this year.” “Alright, I promise to buy you a Baby Alive.” “Yes, anyone can become a princess.” “No, Bambi’s mother is just sleeping.”

But seriously, the promise of future employment through connections and experiences from your internship can’t take the place of actual compensation, because again, there is no guarantee that your free labor will lead to a job.  It’s like telling a starving man, “Well, I won’t give you any food, but over the next three months, I’ll teach you how to cook.  And then, you’ll be able to cook in kitchens anywhere.  But, by anywhere, I mean the kitchens whose owners I know who are hiring right now, or in the next few months.  So, maybe you can have a sandwich in like, half a year or something?” It’s really not a great process, especially if, like me, you don’t have the means to support yourself where all the truly enticing internships are.  And, oftentimes, one unpaid internship isn’t enough.  You need several before you can hit bank.  Oi vey.

So, companies, cut your interns some slack.  Their internships mean just as much to them as your “real jobs” do to you.  How about you reward them as such, eh?

UPDATE: For more on unpaid internships, check out Ryan’s post questioning the legality of many practices used by employers today.


2 Responses to “Unpaid Internships”

  1. Junia August 30, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    Hot damn, woman. All good points. Even where I volunteer buys my lunch and occasionally buys me movie tickets. I didn’t apply to ANY unpaid internships in college because I literally couldn’t afford it.


  1. Interns: Slaves or Heros? « liberalart.us - August 30, 2010

    […] and Leslie both commented: we’re clearly on a roll with this intern thing. So let’s keep it cooking… my thoughts on internships: paid, unpaid, or […]

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