Internships are great. Don’t get me wrong. But the problem is that so many of them are unpaid. College students and recent grads can very rarely afford to work for free. Job listings for internships will roll out the red carpet in their descriptions, promising things like industry exposure, networking, hands-on experience, and the possibility of a full-time job. Those are great things! Everyone likes those things. And once you get finished reading all of that, and once the excitement you’re feeling is close to what you’d feel if you happened upon a room filled with Great Dane puppies, you see that nobody is going to pay you. The puppies are gone. Poof.
I can’t begin to tell you how many internships I wanted to apply for but didn’t because they weren’t paid. I remember finding one that was the dream. I stalked the hell out of the Instagram hashtags, I read blog posts from previous interns, I was damn near squealing with excitement. Except I would’ve had to live in LA for four months without a paycheck and without enough hours in the day to work at a coffee shop to pay for things like food and rent.
To be totally honest, I just gave up on doing an internship at all. The ones I wanted weren’t going to pay me a cent, and the ones that were going to pay me enough to do things like eat dinner at night required 20 years experience and my firstborn child.
Two months before I graduated college, I got an offer to intern for a clothing company based out of LA. I really didn’t even have to think about it, mostly because of where I was in life. I had no job lined up for after school, so saying no seemed kind of dumb. Technically speaking, the internship wasn’t paid. But it was a 10-week summer tour across the country doing pop-up shops. I didn’t have to pay for gas, food, or hotels the entire time. I also didn’t have a rent payment to make. (I lived at home through college to save money. 10/10 recommend if you go to school in your hometown.) So, did I get a paycheck? No. But did I really have anything I absolutely had to pay for regularly? No. (Well, yes. Credit cards. They’ll get you every single time.)
*This internship was a unicorn and I will write a post about it soon.
I’ve never worked a true non-paying internship, but I’ve also never worked an actual paying one either. So, like the true millennial/Gen Z hybrid that I am, I asked people on social media what they thought about unpaid internships. Here’s the gist of what I got:
- Exposure in target industries
- Opportunity to learn from people doing exactly what you want to do
- Making connections that will help find a full-time job later
- Finding a home at a company you can see yourself working at for a long period of time
- Friends to play beer pong with at 2 a.m. (not sure this was the point, but whatever)
It’s basically that list I talked about when they roll out the red carpet in the job descriptions.
The Bad & The Ugly
These things aren’t going in a list. I want to talk about a few of the responses I got the most frequently. The first one is the fact that unpaid interns are often working more hours than paid employees. I know several people who took unpaid internships not knowing what their hours were going to be and not knowing what their daily tasks would be. One friend told me about how her boss found out she was really good at creating Excel spreadsheets, so he had her doing those. At night. While he was paying someone else to do the job they were no longer doing. While paying her NOTHING. She was doing her internship work during the day and somebody else’s work at night. Whew. That’s a problem. (Hopefully, it’s also an anomaly because that’s insane to me.)
Someone else mentioned that it wasn’t necessarily about the hours. Interns are like assistants––expected to be the first person there and the last to leave. It was more about the fact that she was doing the exact same things that paid employees were doing. That’s when, I think, interns start to feel like they’re being taken advantage of. If an employer is going to pay someone to do a job and not pay someone else to do the same job, that sends the message that the person with the paycheck is valuable and the other is not.
“I was doing the same work as a full time employee but not getting paid.” – Elspeth Minzer
And the doozy: continuing the cycle of privilege. Let’s talk about unpaid entertainment industry internships. Like the one I wanted to apply for but didn’t because I am not rich, nor was I born into a family in Hollywood with a great-great-grandfather who directed John Wayne. I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying every single person who takes an unpaid internship in entertainment (or in any industry, really) had it fed to them on a silver spoon. I’m just saying that it most definitely happens sometimes.
Think about it. You’ve got two people wanting the same job. One of them has a connection in the industry. Maybe an uncle who is the CEO or a cousin who is on the board or a brother-in-law who is a producer. Or maybe they have parents who are able to support them for months on end while they work for free. The other person is someone who put themselves through school on scholarships and financial aid. Maybe their parents are teachers, and we know this country regularly shits on teachers. Maybe they’re living on welfare and working 80 hours a week while still struggling to put food on the table. That person could be the best candidate for that internship, but can they afford to take it? Probably not.
That’s the cycle. And until something changes, it will continue. People will still have to choose between working for free to open up doors professionally and keeping the lights on at night.