14 People Share Their Thoughts on Whether or Not Unpaid Internships Should Be Illegal

For years there has been this perception that unpaid internships are a way to “pay your dues” and “get a leg up,” or even just boost your resume before applying to college or looking for a job post-graduation.

Lately, though, people have become more and more vocal about the privilege a person has to have to be able to work for free – when people who come from lower-class families are working to help their families survive every single month.

This guy on Reddit posed the question very eloquently, complete with explanation.

And now these 14 people are in it to change his mind – or not.

14. But were they all rich kids.

I have had 3 people take unpaid internships with me.

They spent 2 months each and I ended up hiring them after.

I would never have met with or been able to gauge their ability without the unpaid internship.

Just my experience.

13. Someone is always going to get the short end of the stick.

There is no middle ground. I think it’s a mistake to believe that everyone should have the same opportunity all the time. There are 7 billion people on the planet. Some have to get the short end of the stick, or we wouldn’t exist.

Imagine a world where every single person was afforded the same opportunity at all times, regardless of class or circumstance. What does that look like? Now every single person can apply and has an equal shot at this hypothetical unpaid internship. Every unemployed person in your city applies, who filters through all those candidates? How do you “fairly” choose a single one? Who’s left to pick up your garbage and serve you your French fries if everyone has access to the cream of the crop at all times? Its infeasible in such a large hyper connected species. There has to be a bottom and a top or it doesn’t work.

There is a solution for those with less favorable circumstances. Its consistency, tenacity, and discipline. We are all equally afforded the only commodity that can change the outcome of your life, knowledge. Anyone, anywhere, can find the means to make it to a library, use a free public computer, and educate themselves in anything they desire. Anyone can dedicate themselves to studying hard and acing school so they are eligible for scholarships.

We need to be teaching how to find satisfaction outside of opportunity, and teaching those who are less fortunate or not as “privileged” to accept that fact and teach them that there is a way to get put but they have to work harder for it. We are just breeding discontent and depression with this way of thinking and constant outcry to “fix” something that can’t reasonably be fixed.

Giving everyone the same opportunities, and equal accessibility to everything does nothing but send the subliminal message “it doesnt matter how hard you work or what you do anyone can have this at anytime”

One of our greatest motivations as a living organism is to strive and succeed. You think to take that away from us will have a beneficial outcome?

We admire the weaker animal in a species that triumphs in the end through sheer determination (see national geographic content “the smallest of the litter who was bullied away from the good food etc etc manages to get to point A despite his misfortunes”) yet we complain about that need in our own.

12. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Much of what you are describing is actually already illegal in the US.

This page explains what is required to be an unpaid internship.

  • The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
  • The experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  • The intern does not displace regular employees but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  • The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  • There is no guarantee of a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  • Both parties understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the internship.

If any of those aren’t true, the intern has to be paid.

The point that can’t be overlooked is this: The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

It means that the work the intern is doing is educational, and not actually for the benefit of the company, but the intern themself.

Otherwise, it’s just to be considered a job.

11. That might result in fewer internships.

There is a reason why these positions are unpaid, because the companies see no value in paying for it.

Therefore if we were to mandate that all internships have to be paid positions, there would be significantly lesser internships to go around.

Would this be a better option?

10. Tell that to everyone offering them.

In order to host an unpaid internship, you have to meet a number of criteria, which pretty much guarantee that the internship will not be valuable to you.

So, the kind of unpaid internship you seem to object to is already illegal. But the kind of unpaid internship that is actually educational and of more benefit to the intern than the company is legal. Do you believe these should be eliminated?

As someone who has worked with unpaid interns, I can tell you that it was barely valuable to me and my organization. Interns require a lot of training, they typically have poor judgement (youth, lack of experience, etc.), they tend to be over-committed, and their positions are relatively short-term. So imagine finding educational projects for these people that aren’t too high a priority, don’t require too much training, and can be just shelved or handed over when the intern leaves. Then train their replacements and repeat.

The value is two-fold: 1) you create better-trained workers for your industry, and 2) every once in a while you identify an intern that you actually want to hire into a full-time job.

9. Everyone has a choice.

These unpaid internships are not going to get replaced by the general population, the jobs simply won’t exist. And an unpaid internship is a huge boost to those without connections, quite the contrary to what you think. A company has almost no risk in hiring an unpaid worker and thus they can be more “loose” with whom they hire, meaning they are less inclined to rely on personal connections to vouch for the candidate. When the company has to pay real money for someone, they actually have an incentive to make the more risk-averse choice of hiring someone whom can be vouched for by a current employee.

Get rid of unpaid internships? I’m sure the millions of college kids that get relegated to sitting at home all summer will love you. If you don’t like that’s its unpaid, don’t do it. Go into a field that has paid internships, or get a regular summer job, but we shouldn’t take the opportunity away from everyone else.

8. Exactly like college.

I feel like your argument could be applied verbatim to college.

College provides experience that helps you get a better job, but not only do you not get paid to attend college, you have to pay to go there. Since you aren’t getting paid, you either have to have the money ahead of time, work on the side to earn it, or borrow the money. This creates a natural built in inequality among students from poor and privileged backgrounds…

It’s almost exactly the same rationale, but nobody is arguing to ban college. About the only difference is the ability to get loans to pay for college, but I doubt you’d advocate to make loans available so that people can work unpaid internships.

7. An excellent question.

Think of it this way. They don’t create class barriers. Their access is determine by class inequalities. Should we reduce the total amount of opportunity there is out there or should we increase everybody’s access to it?

6. It’s a straight scam.

In an economy where people survive by buying and selling labor it is insane to me that there would be anyone willing to work for free. It’s a whole hearted scam to offer “internships” for job seekers.

I understand unpaid internships for students. They can get valuable work experience for a short term learning experience. I think the original author was trying to speak to this. If you aren’t subsidized by parents/scholarships you are working and going to school which eliminates your ability to intern. This is unfortunate but should not be illegal.

The idea that you have to intern to get a job (which is absolutely a real thing) is robbery. It’s the damage of an employer driven economy ever since the blow up in 2008. This should at least be regulated.

I have never interned but as a musician I have certainly worked for free. Some people are passionate about all kinds of things that they would do for free on top of a job and school. So find what you’re passionate about and do that for free but never work for free.

5. This is a decent option.

My school has a program where you can get credits from unpaid internships. I got 6 credits from doing two 3-month long unpaid internships. Why should that be illegal?

4. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Full disclosure: I have an unpaid intern working for my company right now.

A few years ago, I got in touch with the student office of a local college to see if there were any students who’d like to do some part time work, anything from writing blog posts to designing websites and marketing materials. At first I was offering 12/hr and got few takers, one of my guys who came in to work asked one day if instead of being paid, I would give him an unpaid internship and he could do the same work… I was shocked, of course.

What he went on to tell me, in a nutshell is that people coming out of college with degrees are pretty much unremarkable as there are a lot of them but recent grads with referral letters from past employers doing work in the degree field stand out from the pack.

Long story short, do 10 hrs/wk work for a company, actually learn what the work is like and get a good reference letter to hand to future employers. I personally spend a serious amount of time and site every type of work they did for me so that they get credit for being an “experienced copywriter” or “experienced web designer” or whatever. It gets them a better starting salary in a lot of cases and it’s easier for them to find work right away.

I’m being told this 2nd hand but I’m on my 4th intern now and they’re all pleased and I don’t have trouble finding people like I did for 12/hr, I’d offered up to $15/hr but never actually paid that.

3. School is not internships.

While I agree it is harmful to take advantage of the system of internships it is incredibly harmful to make them illegal. Should we make good schools illegal since they propagate sociological differences or should we rather look for ways to help prop up poorer citizens?

2. They could get a second job.

A lot of these internships do end up costing the company quite a bit in lost productivity from having other employees teach interns stuff and other operational costs of simply having them around. So in many cases they just wouldn’t offer that opportunity to very green people because they don’t benefit from it enough for the investment to be worth it, it they also had to pay them and offer benefits. I think a lot of companies want to help this situation, but need to make it worthwhile for themselves and this is an acceptable compromise.

Yes it sucks having to work multiple jobs (I’ve been there myself) but without this opportunity, they may never be able to get out of the poverty cycle. You’re basically taking a pay cut in favor of getting valuable job experience for a job you’re otherwise unqualified for. Though not all internships are that great, it sucks to be the coffee grabber guy 🙁

1. Define internship.

I believe the issue is that an internship often isn’t an internship

Here’s a government “qualifications test” for an internship

To me, the points that stick out from the link are

  • The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  • The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.

This latter point makes it clear that the purpose of an internship is not free labor, although it certainly does have the possibility to turn into that. An intern shouldn’t be vital to a company, but instead be there to complement and make life a little bit easier. The main purpose of an intern is still to be educated.

I won’t dive into each point, but I think it’s clear that this “test” is there to make sure that an internship benefits an intern in both education and experience. It’s hard to fault the concept of an unpaid intern simply because many companies abuse the position.

I’d also like to add that my former university offered to pay for parts of an internship. There were a number of paid and unpaid summer internships that asked for housing fees that my university would cover simply because they wanted us to be there

I definitely see both sides of this one, but there has to be a way to better level the playing field, right?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments!