I Hate Unpaid Internships, But Even I Admit They’re Valuable

Callie Enlow

Reportedly, labor shortages have employers “snapping up teenagers” like ravenous crocodiles at a bayou kegger, yet many new grads and college students still feel pressured to work for free. While official statistics are scant, it’s thought that at least 1 million young worker wannabes take an internship every year, and about 50 percent of those opportunities are unpaid.

But when you’re a young person trying to make ends meet, the promise of experience and professional references are obviously no substitute for what it takes to pay rent, buy food, and otherwise keep yourself alive. And many now make forceful arguments that internships being the first rung on the career ladder privileges those who can afford not to work.

I agree. But this argument generally hinges on the assumption that these internships require something like 40 hours a week, and readers, as both a former intern and recruiter of interns, let me tell you, committing that amount of time is bananas. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen—there are many unpaid full-time internships out there, from the expected nonprofit and campaign work to investment banking and software development. But you can also intern for just a few hours a week while you work another paying gig to make ends meet. I know, because I’ve done it. And, on the other side, I’ve hired interns knowing full well they have compensated jobs that my company must work around.

During and right after college, I took on unpaid internships, but never dedicated more than 15 hours a week to these endeavors. These positions gave me what I needed—meaningful experience, published work, references, and valuable career advice—and I still worked full- and part-time paid jobs to get by independently. The benefits I gained from interning were ultimately significant to my early career. I landed a full-time job at a sister publication to one that hired me as an intern. At another internship, a well-known staffer recommended me for a job at a newspaper where he knew the editor.

Sure, even 10 hours working for free are hours you could be getting paid for. To this I make an unpopular old-fart argument: you’re young. If you’re able, now is the time to put in the long days to gain the experience you really want. Maybe you squeeze in an internship after class and before your service shift. Maybe you work an 8-to-4 workday and then head to an internship from 4:30 to 6:30 five days a week, which is what I did (bless publishing’s wacky hours). This schedule might be tough, but if you like the internship, it won’t break you.

I now know what it’s like to supervise interns as a manager, too. From that perspective, I also see advantages in taking on an intern for something like 10 hours a week, rather than (god forbid) 40. Keeping an intern busy with a full load of work that is both meaningful and appropriate for their not-even-entry-level experience is its own part-time job. It’s actually more manageable to divvy up tasks among a few interns, giving them each project-based work that results in something concrete to show prospective employers, rather than loading one or two interns with hours of busywork to justify their time.

I’m not particularly proud that the interns I hired back in the day were unpaid, and today we don’t have such arrangements at Make Change because I no longer find the practice conscionable. But I did gladly recommend many of those interns for paying work, either at my company or as a reference for another opportunity, and I rarely saw any of those young workers for more than 15 hours a week.

This kind of flexible, part-time arrangement requires a bit of gumption on the intern’s part. I never just found an internship that magically suited my work schedule—I had to ask for that explicitly. Companies also have to be flexible, and even creative, in accommodating non-standard intern hours. But if you’ve got the kind of talent they’re looking for, the company will make it work, and vice versa. If the target company isn’t willing to consider working around a prospect’s existing paid-work schedule, you should think long and hard about what that says about their internship program and corporate culture in general.

No matter the time requirement, make sure you have a solid understanding of what duties you’ll be performing and what specific professional opportunities the internship will provide. My own experiences featured plenty of dull, but necessary, work like transcribing interviews and digitizing archives. But I also attended staff meetings, reported on important local stories, and worked closely with accomplished editors, some of whom became mentors. That is to say, rote tasks in and of themselves may not be warning signs, but if they’re the only tasks you’re likely to perform or if you’re completing them sequestered away from the rest of the office, consider whether this opportunity is worth any of your time at all.

None of this is to excuse unpaid internships. They’re a crutch for mismanaged companies and a drain on young adults. More than one publication I worked for during journalism’s long downward spiral from profitability responded to credible staff complaints of overwork by suggesting an unpaid internship to pick up the slack, instead of hiring people to fulfill entry-level tasks. In that sense, unpaid internships not only fail to provide a wage, they take the possibility of paid work off the table. As many creative industries contract and concentrate geographically to major coastal cities, these free laborers may also pay considerable travel and living costs just to work gratis in expensive areas.

And yet unpaid internships are undeniably still around, although paid internships appear to be more beneficial to young professionals in the long run. Even uncompensated internships are useful in providing valuable industry connections, making them all the more important for disadvantaged groups who may not have that networking opportunity handed to them through other means, like an Ivy league alumni association, social club, or well-heeled family member.

Consider that the internship alternative for most students or young graduates is often paying work in the gig economy or a minimum wage job, which can’t be said to confer the same career prospects. Unless you are an exceptionally gifted resume writer, that summer gig slinging fast food likely won’t be as attractive as an internship in your field of choice. Better, I think, to spend most of your time taking drive-through orders or stocking supermarket shelves, if that’s what pays the bills, but spend just enough time interning to get what you need from it, including an impressive resume listing. And not a minute more.