Unpaid internships, or arrangements in which students or recent grads work for college credit or “experience”, once seemed like a necessity for those who want to get their foot in the door. And in a number of industries, these internships without pay remain pretty de rigueur.
But recently, there’s been a backlash against the concept of putting young and ambitious employees to work without tangible compensation. As of 2017, 61% of graduating college seniors spent time in an internship or apprenticeship during their academic careers, 57% of whom received payment for their labor (up 6% from 2011). However, unpaid internships still run rampant throughout many industries in the US. And with over 70% of unpaid interns in the US identifying as female, women are disproportionately finding themselves in these positions.
In the year 2018, is an unpaid internship ever worth it, for employers or interns? We spoke with 3 professional women to hear their thoughts on this controversial topic.
New Jersey-based HR consultant and career coach Krishna Powell accepted both paid and unpaid internships early in her career. She found that the unpaid positions allowed her more influence and autonomy than the ones involving financial compensation.
“While in college, I completed two unpaid internships. And to my surprise, I enjoyed the unpaid internships much more than the paid internships. With unpaid internships, I felt confident in helping shape the role [of my internship] and found that leadership was more than willing to seek my opinion and listen to my suggestions. With paid internships, I found that organizations weren't as open to hearing what an intern thought her position could or should be,” Powell told Fairygodboss.
Los Angeles PR apprentice Hannah Payne is currently wrapping up her undergraduate education, but the paid apprenticeship she’s working right now isn’t her first go-around on the internship Ferris wheel.
“My first two internships in college were for PR firms that did not pay their interns. In addition to the work being unpaid, food and gas were not reimbursed. I found that I felt less valued and did not work as hard,” Payne told Fairygodboss.
While she questions the ethical nature of unpaid internships, she does admit that these non-compensated positions helped her gain experience that proved beneficial to her job hunt.
"I do think that [the ability to put these internships] on my resume helped me attain excellent paid internships and career opportunities in the PR field,” Payne said.
Marketing VP Wendy Fox of Green House Data hires interns for her department. But she is strongly commited to paying these employees for their time and labor, largely to make hiring practices as egalitarian as possible.
“We bring on interns on occasion, but interns are always paid. Even with ethics aside, unpaid internships severely limit the talent pool to only interns who can afford to work for nothing. That alone is a compelling argument, especially in the current economy where talent is in very high demand."
However, the ethical concerns are undeniable. Considering that women already perform almost twice the unpaid labor of men, and are paid less when they are paid, organizations refusing to reinforce the unpaid intern system are particularly important to women's equality.
"In a 2017 study, researchers from MIT and Stanford found that paid internships actually may help close the gender pay gap by [promoting] the managerial track for women and establishing a higher baseline for compensation for first jobs out of school, offering yet another reason to permanently phase out unpaid internships,” Fox explained.