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That’s right, I’m talking to you, students and recent graduates! If you continue to think of internships as “free labor,” so too will companies.

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Those are all you — not companies — and I could include many, many more examples. Why are you devaluing yourselves?

Let’s take a few steps back and talk about the purpose of internships — the real, originally-intended purpose. Internships are meant to be educational in nature and supplement what you’re learning in college classrooms. In class, you’re learning all about theory. Internships help you put those theories into practice. In order to effectively accomplish this, you typically do real work for a real company. I have always been under the impression that this is a good thing, yet today’s students and recent graduates (you) have somehow translated this “real world experience” into “free labor.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Just because your internship is paid, doesn’t make it a good program. And, just because your internship is unpaid doesn’t make it an illegal, brand-damaging blight on the company.

As a disclaimer, I do believe if an organization can afford to pay its interns that it should do so. However, many small businesses and nonprofits want to give back to the community by offering internships and can’t afford to pay. Does that make them evil? No, not in my opinion.

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Willy Franzen of OneDayOneJob.com and OneDayOneInternship.com (both of which you should check out) and I got into it the other day about the relationship between paid internships and the quality of the overall internship experience. As you can see above, Willy believes they are linked, but I disagree. I can say from my own experience that my only paid internship was the worst of the five I had in college. Almost every other young professional I’ve spoken with confirms that their unpaid internship experiences changed their careers for the better. (And might I add that I’ve had many paying jobs that sucked big time!) To me, there’s no true correlation.

Want to know what I think really made my unpaid internships — and those of the students/grads I’ve spoken with — better? (I assume you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this!) The structure of the program itself and what I put into it. Without several core components — mentorship, learning, networking, work samples, and recognition — I would have walked away from the experience thinking I had wasted my time. Paid or unpaid, doesn’t matter.

Internships, like college, are an investment in your future career. As CNN.com bluntly pointed out this week, internships are the new entry-level job. Read into that statement what you will, but I think it means that employers expect you to come out of college with more than knowledge of theories. That’s just how our job market is today.

So, stop referring to internships as “free labor,” and maybe companies will do the same.

Update: Read Mark Babbit of YouTern’s response on their blog here.


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  • http://twitter.com/garyalanmiller Gary Alan Miller

    Heather – you and I agree that there isn’t a direct link between “paid” and “good” in the internship realm. They can be paid/good, paid/bad, unpaid/good, unpaid/bad. The key is for students to be picky, and that sometimes feels difficult in a competitive environment. Sometimes students say they just want “anything” and that’s not good enough. I agree entirely with the CNN article – internships now serve the role that entry-level positions served in the not-too-distant past. While they don’t dictate all that will follow, they do help set course.

    On all those points, I completely agree.

    I will say, however, that I abhor the phrase “real world experience” because it implies that somehow all the knowledge and experience you’re gaining at college isn’t real. Pet peeve of mine.

  • Heather R. Huhman

    Fair enough, Gary! What I meant, and I think you understand this, is that classroom and office experience are very different from one another. I just boiled it down to the phrase that everyone uses (and even put it in quotes). But point well taken — thanks for commenting!

  • Ivellisse Morales

    Great article, Heather!

    Although every internship–good or bad, paid or unpaid–provides experience, some do use interns as “free labor”. Through my own personal experience, I have been used to do time-consuming and mindless work that nobody else wants to do. I have heard horror stories from my peers of endless hours of tweeting/filing/and Excel-ing. Imagine combining all that with a lack of mentorship, rapport and recognition?

    Of course, students cannot forget to make the best out of a “horrible internship” by taking initiative, but sometimes companies do not understand what an internship is for. Students should leave an internship with experience, contacts and new and improved skills…Not with lowered expectations and a negative outlook on internships.

    Ivellisse Morales
    Boston University 2012

  • Heather R. Huhman


    I completely agree, but my mentality is don’t just complain about it, do something about it. One thing you can do is properly vet an internship before accepting it. Another is to walk away (and report it to your university) once you realize the organization is abusing you. And finally, you — the internship candidate — can stop referring to internships as “free labor.” The two phrases should not be interchangeable in your vocabulary!

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting — I appreciate it!

  • http://twitter.com/raquel_gonzalez Raquel Gonzalez

    Hi Heather,

    Great post! Speaking from personal experience, I’ve learned that it’s not about the pay — at all! It’s all about a good program.

    I also agree with As CNN.com that internships are the new entry-level job. It is an investment and “pay” should include your mentioned components, “mentorship, learning, networking, work samples, and recognition.”

    Students should be looking for a stepping stone their career, not a job. I’ve started quite a few internships and quickly realized which ones were going to be horrible — the staff was unorganized, had poor communication and everyone looked as if their pet just died.

    “Paid or unpaid, it doesn’t matter.”

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  • ICP

    After trying for over a year to find a paid internship, I completed an amazing unpaid 400 hour internship to complete my college’s graduation requirements. It was a great experience – but I had to go on food stamps and was one months rent away from being homeless because I was working forty or more hours a week without being paid.
    None of this was the fault of the organization with which I completed the internship, and I know that everyone there truly appreciated the work I did and I gained a great deal from the experience. However, lack of pay is a legitimate problem among young adults who might be barely scraping by – how can you advance your career or education when you can barely afford to live?


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