Internships: Valuable Experience, or Unpaid Labor Racket?

Earlier this month, the New York Times featured a few articles focused on internships and whether they are truly valuable for the intern or just a disguise for companies to exploit workers and capitalize on “free labor.”

In one article, Ross Perlin, a researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project in southwest China and author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy , suggests that “the labor of unpaid interns has quietly replaced or displaced untold thousands of workers.” Perlin goes on to say that “the well-intentioned, structured, paid training experience of yesteryear is increasingly giving way to an unpaid labor racket”. The discussion surrounding internships is very relevant to me as I look to staff my growing recruiting business. I find that much of my daily activity cannot be outsourced, nor am I willing to outsource. Much of my work involves directly sourcing candidates for particular positions or conferring with clients on exactly what they are looking for in their next employee; I feel my background in the electronics industry sets me apart from many recruiters. It would be difficult for me to “teach” an intern the nuances of the electronics business in a single semester. However, I recognize a need for a greater social media presence for JJM Search, which could be well-executed by an intern, specifically someone from Generation Y, where social media is second nature.

I recently hired (yes, hired!) an intern from a local liberal arts university. Lauren is a senior (a business marketing/management major) and has already brought a wealth of energy and fresh perspective to my business. Lauren is focusing on all aspects of social media including establishing the company's Facebook presence, enhancing the LinkedIn site, creating a YouTube company video, and developing an improved and fully-linked Website at

The internship is virtual, except for occasional lunch meetings to fill in the blanks from our weekly calls and to get out of the office or off campus! The stipend that Lauren earns probably isn't enough to make a dent in her student loans but is based on approximate hours of work and equal to what she would get working part-time locally. Lauren says she would have taken the internship even without a stipend, as the work experience is valuable for her as she looks to enter the job market permanently in May. Not to mention the connections this internship provides.

I am a firm believer in internships. I had several during my college days — some paid, some unpaid — and all provided a wealth of experience. In some cases, the experience helped in highlighting careers I didn't want to pursue. Perlin, in his article, concludes that “ultimately, the government has a fundamental responsibility for ensuring that the labor market remains a level playing field and that America continues to be a land of opportunity. The law has said for decades that unpaid work, with few exceptions, is illegal. It is time to enforce the law.”

I'm sorry, but I wholeheartedly disagree that the government needs to step in and eliminate unpaid internships. I believe internships (paid or unpaid) can bring tremendous value to an intern, and, ultimately, to his or her future employers.

23 comments on “Internships: Valuable Experience, or Unpaid Labor Racket?

  1. vimalkumarp
    March 2, 2012

     Dear Carla

    what an excellent article..! “I believe internships (paid or unpaid) can bring tremendous value to an intern, and, ultimately, to his or her future employers”

    i feel you are spot on..


  2. Clairvoyant
    March 2, 2012

    I agree with all your points as well Carla, I think interships are very valuable for experience and allowing interns to get their foot into a company which may later hire them.

  3. t.alex
    March 2, 2012

    I agree too, internships do a great bringing in real life experience to campus students.

  4. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 3, 2012

    In my opinion , the internships should be UNPAID only.  Internship is not a labor , it is actually a free learning experience where the intern gets something invaluable, not found in the books and not taught in the classrooms. The companies employing the interns also are not expecting the work of interns to add direct value to their business. Many times the assignments given to the interns are of exploratory nature, proof of concept studies or similar things.

    For companies interns are their future source of manpower whereas for Interns it is an opportunity to get to know the naunces of a employee-employer relationship.

  5. ychange
    March 3, 2012

    I agree with the author,  Nevertheless, “employers” need to be committed to giving the intern productive assignments and not “grunt work” and should supervise and mentor the interns so that the learning experience is beneficial to both parties.

  6. Carla Mahrt
    March 3, 2012

    You are right – productive internships take effort from both parties. Some programs are very formal and established – Avnet for example does a fantastic job with their program. Others take on the form of a one on one mentorship. Both can be equally beneficial.

  7. elctrnx_lyf
    March 4, 2012

    It is left to individuals to decide whether they want to be unpaid/paid labour. Generaly government have to put some regulations in place and should make sure that companies are following these guidelines properly.

  8. ITempire
    March 4, 2012

    Carla you are talking about a situation that is extremely opposite to what I have seen. I have seen companies so fed up of entertaining interns that they pay them a decent amount and want them to sit at home. They are under arrangements with universities that the company will hire their student as an intern and that is what makes them liable to entertain interns against company's will. Even if interns are not directed to sit at home, they are given such nonsense tasks that an undergrad or post grad student will never have to do in his professional life again. So thats a total waste for company and student both.

    You are talking about another extreme and I am sure its true as well. Its important to improve the situation and I think regulators need to step in to protect permanent employees and interns both while also keeping corporations' interests in mind. 

    March 4, 2012

    Working in many high tech environments most interns offer little to the company but the posts do offer invaluable experience for the intern and in the long run become useful to the company.  I do however believe interns should be paid subsistence or more if they are actually capable in some way.

  10. Wale Bakare
    March 4, 2012

    I agree with you Elctrnx_lyf on getting internship regulated by government. Since the experience gained by some of the interns will reflect in their resumes. I believe getting them paid can make employers assign challenge tasks to them.  

  11. Adeniji Kayode
    March 5, 2012

    You are right. I also see it as an opportunity for interns to know what it means to be a worker.

  12. tioluwa
    March 5, 2012

    I did a 6months internship as a student and learnt a whole not, got paid nothing, and was treated like trash.

    But the knowledge i gathered, and the exposure i got proved very indispensable to me in my career. that to me was more important than any pay i could have been given then.

    Working now, I have also had to accept interns due to university programs which has lead to some great students as well as some very strong liabilities.

    I think any serious company should have a solid program for their interns.

    Create as structure where they can learn on the job, monitor them for a while, and send them home if they are not catching up after a stipulated time. Interns can rapidly grow to be valuable staffs, but some can also grow to be terrible burdens, causing distractions at work.

  13. Adeniji Kayode
    March 5, 2012

    @Tioluwa, You are right , It may not be bad if interns can be paid in a company where they are really contributing meaningful effort and learning along side.

    To some interns, the pay can go a long way in asisting them in their studies while some will abuse the opportunity.

  14. Eldredge
    March 5, 2012

    My daughter also had several internship opportunities during her college career. All of them were valuable in helping her fine-tune her career aspirations at the end of her college tenure. While I am sure there are some less valuable internship 'opportunities' out there, I would hate to see a disincentive for those who are providing valuable opportunities.

  15. Ariella
    March 5, 2012

    For certain fields in which experience is considered more important than coursework, interships are invaluable. Those are worthwhile even with no pay. There are also intenships that do pay. When my husband worked at Goldman Sachs, he said there were several college students working in the summer as interns. They actually got paid well, but they were worked hard and treated not so well. Still it would have been worth it to any of them, not just for the money, but because they got to put the name of the firm on their resumes.  

  16. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 5, 2012

    I got my first job as the result of an internship. Getting a foot in the door is worth its weight in gold.

  17. bolaji ojo
    March 5, 2012

    Companies don't hire interns out of some altruism. They do only because they know they can extract some value from the students, even if that value lies only in keeping the coffee pot full and fresh. Whenever you engage with someone to provide a service as a for-profit organization, you owe that individual some payment, otherwise don't bother.

  18. bolaji ojo
    March 5, 2012

    In journalism school I was offered an internship with a local radio station and as a broadcast major I thought it was an excellent opportunity until the terms were spelled out. The station was about 20 miles from where I lived and the out-of-pocket expenses I would have to pay were high. Also, I would have had to work odd hours, switching from morning shift to afternoon to night each week, which further complicated transportation. It was also unpaid.

    The station manager told me I would learn a lot. I couldn't afford that kind of learning experience. And neither could my parents. Plus, my college had a student radio station at which I worked (interned) during school days without pay. So, I turned it down.

    Instead, I interned with my sister and her husband, both of them physicians starting their own practice. I visited companies on their behalf to get them retainership with businesses. It was tough work but I learned a lot about human relationships and sales, all of which may or may not have had anything to do with journalism. But I did the real work, not watered down stuff. Plus, I got paid. Which kind of came in handy on resumption!

  19. Carla Mahrt
    March 5, 2012

    You are right, each internship needs to be evaluated to determine whether “it is a fit” for the individual. Sometimes value comes from places you least expect it. One of the first calls my intern made was to someone at another MRI office in Michigan. Call was set for 11:30 am not realizing the one hour time difference – lesson one learned in very first call. When working across time zones, verify time and zone!

  20. Anna Young
    March 6, 2012

    Obviously the value and experience internships brings is undoubtedly rewarding.

    Conversely the value of unpaid labour gained from an intern by the organisation is equally worth a great deal, this too should be rewarded.  

    Hence, employers should give due consideration and reward the efforts and contribution interns brings to their businesses. Particularly where an intern brings  fresh ideas and  marked contribution to the organisation.

  21. willettlr
    March 6, 2012

    As an Intern I feel that it doesn't matter if it is paid or not because it is the experience I am recieving from the internship. Yes, getting a little extra cash is nice but in the long run the valuable skills and connections I am making will benefit me in the end. These days, more and more people are looking at our resumes to see if we have any prior experience or internships that may divide us from other competition in the job market today who haven't had any internships.

  22. Anne
    March 6, 2012

    Both paid or unpaid interships can provide one with excellent opportunities to gain career-related work experience. Intership has some basic values like clarifying students career goals with professionals helps in making decision if the field is right or not, it also has a value of expanding students knowledge by seeing how problem are solve on practically.

  23. JADEN
    March 6, 2012

    My job experience and career started during my internship.  After the internship, the company offered me a part-time job throughout my study.  To me, the internship is of great value.

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