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Should We Ban Unpaid Internships?

By Talia Klein Perez
 unslash / frederic-koberl
*Updated 2022
In some professions, such as media, fashion, law, and politics, among others, unpaid internships are accepted as the only way to get a foot in the door and start a career. But the value of unpaid internships has been hotly debated over the years. Are they useful or exploitative? And if the latter is true, should unpaid internships therefore be banned?
Here are three arguments for and three arguments against banning unpaid internships.


Three Reasons to Support Unpaid Internships


Unpaid internships are part of capitalism

The business world turns upon trust and relationships. Service providers often give a sample of their work for free.  Likewise, product manufacturers provide free demos, and entrepreneurs understand that they need to spend money to prove that their concept works if they want to break into the market. Unpaid internships are no different than any of these examples. When young people work in unpaid internships, they are essentially building their CVs. By attaching their names to a reputable firm, that firm’s reputation stands out on the interns’ CVs. They are given the opportunity to demonstrate their dedication, work ethic and willingness to learn – not to mention acquire a wide range of skills and contacts – which are all vital for getting a good-paying job in the future. In fact, college students who had internships are 15% less likely to be unemployed in the years after graduating college than those who didn’t.


Unpaid internships are really long interviews

Academic studies are all very well, but they only go so far in demonstrating an individual’s persistence, proficiency as a team player, and how well he or she gets on with colleagues in the workplace. Companies in fields such as fashion and law are understandably unwilling to give a highly coveted paid job to someone who is fresh out of college. Such companies prefer the reassurance of seeing how he/she actually performs every day, especially when given lowly tasks, before rewarding them with a full-paying job. Even famous people like Steven Spielberg began as an unpaid intern in Hollywood. Perhaps we should call it a long interview instead of an internship.


If we ban them, they’ll just go underground

As Prohibition demonstrated, if you ban something that people really want, they’ll still find a way to get it. If unpaid internships were banned, businesses would still get unpaid workers (especially in coveted or over-populated industries), in a way which may be unregulated and unsupervised. By maintaining a system of unpaid internships that is transparent, we can make sure that businesses don’t take advantage of interns or keep people trapped in unpaid jobs without any outside knowledge.

Three Reasons Why Unpaid Internships are a Bad Idea


They don’t help interns find jobs

If you support the idea of unpaid internships, it might be because you think they help people find jobs. But statistics by the National Association of Colleges (NACE) and Employers show that people who took unpaid internships were actually less likely to find a job than those who took paid internships. A student survey by NACE found that students completing an unpaid internship the year before graduation were more likely to be still seeking employment six months after receiving their degree than those who completed a paid internship. In addition, unpaid interns don’t seem to get any more job offers than their pals with intern experience at all.


Unpaid internships lead to low company loyalty

Many people who support unpaid internships argue that businesses can’t afford to offer paid internships. However, unpaid internships may be bad for business. Unpaid interns tend to feel that their work is unimportant because they aren’t being paid for it, consequently leading some to expend only a meager effort. This doesn’t establish long-term loyalty. Businesses, then have to train someone with no loyalty to the company who could leave at any time. Meanwhile, paid interns feel more engaged with the company and more enthusiastic to give their all to the job.


Businesses create a useless experience

Some businesses seem to treat their interns either as a source of unpaid grunt labor or as unwanted students that they don’t know how to teach. Either way, in some instances, interns can end up wasting their time making coffee and photocopying documents, and businesses waste their time (or their employees’ time) coming up with tasks to keep their interns occupied – and/or training the interns in how to complete them. Since many companies are not capable of creating actual, valuable work experiences that will help interns in the long run, they shouldn’t be expected to pay interns as they pay their regular employees.


The Bottom Line: When considering the pros and cons of unpaid internships, perhaps we should recognize that payment can come in more forms than simple coinage. What do you consider fair payment for an internship?

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