Unpaid Internships: Valuable Experience or Unpaid Labor?

Full-time jobs are hard to find in this economy, but one sector of workers that have thrived since the downturn are those willing to work for free. Unpaid internships, which promise to give college students or those just entering the job market experience and a foot in the door at their chosen company, have become more popular. But do these unpaid positions really benefit the workers who accept them — or are they a way for companies to save money by exploiting unpaid positions?

NPR delved into the world of unpaid interns with Alex Footman, who worked as an intern on the multi-million dollar film Black Swan. Footman was disappointed with the internship, stating, “It was not a learning experience and that was what I had expected. This really just seemed like I was just working and wasn’t getting paid for it.”

Footman and another unpaid intern are suing Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film’s producer, for restitution for the hours they spent working on the film. They also want to make sure that the company will not be able to hire unpaid interns in the future.

Technically, many unpaid internships may be illegal. The Supreme Court ruled more than 50 years ago that only work done for training purposes could go unpaid. But many companies offer unpaid internships just as a chance for workers to gain experience in their chosen industry.

Is the time and effort involved in an unpaid internship worth it? It depends. Some industries that are more difficult to break into, such as film and publishing, view an internship as a nearly indispensable part of the career track. But to accept multiple unpaid internships instead of pursuing a paid position is one trap that many young people fall into, and that could hurt them in the long run.

I will start my first unpaid internship at a small publisher in Naperville, Illinois next week. Whether or not it will prove to be a worthwhile experience remains to be seen.

Related Stories:

InternshipGate: Are Universities Letting Their Students Be Exploited?

Recent Graduates Head For Green Jobs

The Trials of the Twenty-Somethings?

Photo credit: Travis Isaacs


Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

As a non-profit with no funds, my organization cannot offer paid positions. I'm even funding the cause to tighten laws on child abuse out of my own pocket. So I guess I'm evil for wanting to solicit unpaid interns, even though I'm not getting paid either.

Thing is, people with a college education wants a position related to their field. I can offer political, secretarial &administrative, financial & accounting, and a couple other positions. When they apply to the companies that are for profit, and they want experience to back that education up, they have it because I've offered it to them. Many companies want to see that the new grad has been active in the community, because they figure it's easy to get good grades if you did nothing else aside from being a student. This way, it shows that they have initiative, and in this economy where it's very competitive, new grads need as many advantages as they can get.

So no, it's NOT just a greedy way to "get ahead". My cause, Youth Voice Initiative (YVI) found at www.youthvoiceinitiative.org - is also a voice for abuse survivors to be able to speak up and speak out, under the protection of the organization as well, to add strength to stop child abuse.

Those of you who think I should offer pay, are welcome to make the donations out of your own free will to help ensure that I can actually offer something, even if it's only a small stipend. A good fundraiser would be nice. Thank you.

Holly Lawrence
Holly Lawrence6 years ago

Free labor - that's all it is!

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W6 years ago

The companies are saving money at the trainees' cost...

K s Goh
KS G6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

J C Bro
J C Brou6 years ago

Heaven help us all.

Cheryl B.
Cheryl B6 years ago

unpaid labor

Robert Hardy
Robert Hardy6 years ago

I have offered unpaid internships, but only when it gains the student credit at their educational institution. I now offer paid internships, unless it conflicts with educational internships. No labor should be free. And the internship should be valuable and educational regardless of pay. If the "intern" doesn't learn, then it is just exploitation.

Sue H.
Sue H6 years ago

I think that it depends on the company, are they offering real training or wanting a "go for".
It also depends on the student/intern. My nephew got screwed royally by the film school
he attended. A must do internship was worthless though the school told him he would be
sure to land a job.

iii q.
g d c6 years ago

depends on the industry and depends on the intern.
do interns show any intiative?
or just sit around waitign to be told to get coffee or do the filing?
do they ask questions?

Paula L.
Paula L6 years ago

I worked for many years for a company that always paid it's interns. But I worked right along side many interns and they were being taught and getting hands on experience at the same time that would be valuable to them when they are venturing out on their own to find a job or start their own business.

I personally feel that interns should be paid, and get hands on experience at the same time. That is what they have studied for and should not just be standing around observing. Include them! And they should be paid. In most cases they will have large college debts to pay back, and if they were not doing the work, another employee would be and be getting paid for it. Companies who put lots of interns to work and don't pay them, are just using them to save themselves money they would ordinarily be paying for. It is unfair to the intern, their work is just as valuable to a company as a seasoned employees would be. Pay Them!