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  • Writer's pictureAdeleine Whitten

Unpaid internships should be illegal

Whenever I write articles for my site, I try to pose topics in the form of a question. I want my readers to come in with an open mind, consider all sides, and form their own conclusions despite my thoughts on the subject. The original title of this piece was, “Should unpaid internships be illegal?” – however, I cannot, in good conscience, make my opinion on this seem at all ambiguous.

Unpaid internships should be illegal. I’m not afraid to say it.

But with the job market being as competitive as it is and the fear of being unemployed upon graduation looming over every college student, companies continue to offer payment in the form of experience.

So how did we get here?

The legality of unpaid internships

When a fifteen-year-old with no prior work experience gets a job at their local McDonald’s restaurant, McDonald’s is required by law to pay that employee at least the minimum wage per hour. No exceptions. But if a college student is hired by McDonald’s Corporate to intern in their marketing department, McDonald’s could argue that they don’t have to pay at all.

This is because, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act, any employee of a for-profit company must pay their employees at least the minimum wage – the key word here being ‘employee’, not ‘intern’. Interns aren’t protected by labor laws, despite the increasing responsibilities of interns at most companies.

The original definition of an internship specifies that the primary beneficiary of the arrangement needs to be the intern. The internship needs to teach on-the-job skills, similar to how a college class would assign work. Internships also have to complement – not replace – the work done by existing, paid employees.

But concept creep has allowed companies to consider any temporary employee an intern. It was only a few years ago that I had my LinkedIn job alerts set for “Marketing Intern”, and you’d be shocked by the kind of responsibilities that were required by companies that didn’t compensate.

If a company wants somebody to work 40 hours per week doing anything, they should be paid for it. Just a thought. But even part-time internships are often just as demanding and require the student to be regularly available, making it tough to also work somewhere that pays.

So why do students continue to accept unpaid internships?

The unfortunate truth is that students need the experience in order to get a job after graduation. Many entry-level positions these days won’t accept just a college degree as proof that you know what you’re doing; they want you to have real-world examples of your skills in the form of another company’s name on your resume. Even if young professionals are able to land a full-time gig without an internship, they typically take longer to get hired and are paid less than their internship-experienced counterparts.

It’s also important to consider the current student debt statistics in this country. The average college grad with their bachelor’s pays $234 per month in student loans – and this amount more than doubles for borrowers with their master’s. On a personal note, my student loan payments are currently more per month than my rent, and I live in a two-bedroom apartment with no roommates.

So on top of other basic expenses such as housing, utilities, groceries, and gas, living can get quite expensive. New grads are given a six-month grace period before payments are due, so the clock is ticking to get hired or risk defaulting. If internships can help speed up that process, it’s no wonder they’re so sought after.

On a more basic level, internships really are extremely beneficial experiences. Test driving a future job or company can help students figure out what they’re good at, what they enjoy doing, and where they want to officially begin their career.

Pay your interns.

I had three internships in college – each of them taught me something different about marketing and about myself, and one even led to my first full-time job.

But taking the time to find companies that offered internships in fields I was interested in and also paid enough for gas and groceries was a full-time job in itself. Gatekeeping these experiences to students who can afford to go unpaid or have the time (and sanity) to work second jobs only limits the pool of talented candidates who could really do some good at your company.

College was really hard. Balancing a full class schedule, homework assignments, and a part-time job drained me. I learned a lot in what felt like very little time, and I paid both the mental and financial price for it. But college also provided me with a set of skills that companies were looking for.

Every company these days wants to grow their email list, redesign their website, or improve their social media presence. Asking students to share their recently-learned expertise with these businesses for free is unethical and, frankly, insulting.

But businesses will continue to hire unpaid interns until they are told they can’t anymore. So take what you will from this, but my opinion remains unchanged: if you can’t afford to pay your interns, then you don’t deserve to hire any.

Adeleine Whitten | Professional, kind of

is a marketer by day and writer by night, weekend, and sometimes lunch break. You can often find her with a good book or in the Taco Bell drive-thru.

52 views2 comments


Oct 25, 2022

Adeleine, you are right on target. How can we make your piece required reading for all? Submit to the Plain Dealer? Huff post solicits personal experience opinions and publishes daily. Give it a shot. You are a gifted writer!


Oct 24, 2022

Interesting article! Adding concept creep to my vocabulary .

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