Us Millennials and Gen Z-ers live in a tumultuous world: college tuition is skyrocketing, entry-level jobs require three to five years of experience, and the cost-of-living has soared, especially in cities where minimal wage is still a measly $7 an hour. But yet, as we navigate through college and prepare to enter the “real world,” we’re still met with the expectation we’ll find a great job that pays us a living wage. For many, internships are the best way to get ready for this transition into adulthood.
Internships are an awesome way to not only grow professionally, but they also provide you with great real-world, industry-relevant experience. You get a taste of the demands required by your field of choice, all while getting to network and form connections with higher-ups who can help you in your post-graduation job search. Not to mention internships are a step up financially from your high school job of working at the McDonald’s down the road…maybe.
Many companies take advantage of college students by offering unpaid internships, under the guise of being compensated in “experience.” Well, to those companies, I say: experience isn’t going to pay the rent or put groceries on the table, is it?
Forcing young people to work for free is gross, but what if your company wants to take on interns and can’t afford it? Are there ever any ethical ways to pursue offering unpaid internships? The short answer is: yes, but only if absolutely, completely, 100% necessary, AND you need to have another way to compensate your interns.
Let me begin by saying that companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, major media publications, or any other large corporation have no excuse for offering unpaid internships (not saying that they do—I don’t know if they do or not). If you’re a multi-million/billion dollar organization, saying you don’t have the funds to pay your interns is a flat-out lie. If your company is raking in so much money that you can provide unusual perks for your employees like unlimited vacation, free meals, free gym memberships, etc., then you need to pay your interns. If you have the funds but not the desire to pay your interns, you need to understand that you’re greedily taking advantage of a young person for your own profit, and it’s gross, and you need to stop.
All of that aside, I have worked two internships: one paid, one unpaid. My paid one was for a large organization in my hometown, in between my junior and senior years of college, and it was great. I was making nearly double what I made at my dining hall job at my university, and I was able to save up a lot to start paying off loans when I graduated. My second internship happened the first semester of my senior year, and it was an unpaid, remote position with a very small book publishing company. Although it was unpaid, my supervisor was able to make the experience worth it for what she paid me in knowledge and connections. I had some hesitations about giving my labor away for free going into this internship, but I ended up really enjoying it for several reasons.
- Assign non-demanding, non-deadline-dependent work—but that doesn’t mean they’re your human copier. Unpaid internships should feel very stress-free. Your interns will want to be challenged, but not overwhelmed. Oftentimes, your interns will either be in school or holding down another job (that pays!), so you need to be cognizant that they have other responsibilities. Which goes hand-in-hand with the requirement that unpaid labor should be part-time work (20 hours a week MAX).
- Offer scalability. The core work of my internship only took up 5-8 hours of my week; however, my supervisor offered us additional tasks each week, and I took up almost all of them. If I was having a particularly rough week with classes, I simply didn’t offer to take on more work.
- Make it a virtual/remote position. Obviously, not everyone wants to work via Skype and Google Docs, but keep in mind that people are going to be more likely to work for free from the comfort of their own home. Your interns are actually losing money when they have to drive to a brick-and-mortar office every day; working from home means they’re coming out even.
- Provide knowledge transfer. I had weekly video calls with my supervisor to stay up-to-date on my assignments, as well as to learn more about the publishing industry as a whole. She offered all kinds of advice, insights, and anecdotes about her experience as an editor, and these chats really solidified my dream of becoming one, too.
- Serve as a reference when the internship is over. My supervisor is so good about keeping in touch every few months through emails. I keep her updated about my professional life, and she made sure I knew I could turn to her for letters of recommendation.
My unpaid internship was a great experience with a great company, and I’d recommend working for this small publisher to anyone interested in the literary field; however, I realize that this role was the exception, and oftentimes unpaid internships are just an excuse to exploit young people to save a buck.
If you can’t offer any of the above alternative compensations to your unpaid interns, you have no business offering an internship.