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Betting Against the Future: How Industry Loses When Interns Go Unpaid

A young journalist reflects on her own internship experiences — and how the reliance on unpaid interns is contributing to a failing system.

istock photo via porcorex

Perhaps you’ve heard that ProPublica has launched an investigation into internships. If you’re not familiar with our latest project, here’s the gist: we want to document the emerging intern economy in the United States by hiring an intern to help us investigate the intern economy. There will be multimedia and traveling involved, and it’s paid.

I’m the research intern here at ProPublica, and since we are already in the business of practicing journalism that creates impact, I wanted to do my part to help persuade you to support this project.

To put it simply, the current arrangement between employers and unpaid interns is neither fair nor sustainable. The set-up — where organizations hire workers under pet names such as “apprentice” or “volunteer” and pass off full-time employees’ responsibilities without compensation — undermines a large pool of people in this country, typically young folks. In this sense, employers who actively recruit and rotate new talent without paying for it are directly hurting a critical sector of their own industries. In journalism, this mentality is contributing to a new type of bitterness in an industry that needs young people on its side, rooting for its revival and longevity.

Accepting an unpaid internship is, of course, a choice, albeit a tough one for an emerging workforce with limited professional experience. The economic downturn, paired with student loans and other financial realities, compounds the complexity of this decision for college graduates looking for jobs. According to a recent study (PDF) conducted by Intern Bridge, a college recruiting and consulting firm, more than 50 percent of graduating seniors have had some sort of internship during their time at school, with non-profits leading as the highest provider of unpaid work, followed by government and the for-profit sector. Over the past several years, I have held six internship positions, half of which were not paid and required taking on a hefty slice of salaried employees’ daily workloads, which I completed with fellow interns who often juggled multiple jobs or sought government assistance to make ends meet. 

My decision to take an internship at ProPublica meant the chance to learn about investigative journalism and contribute research to projects that have the potential to create tangible impact. It was also, in the spirit of full disclosure, motivated by the lure of a living wage, something I had not been offered from an internship since graduating from college in 2011.

Thus far, the return on investment has been high. For example, since my arrival at ProPublica in February this year, I have learned how to use nearly a dozen research databases to help enhance my reporting, to comb through public records, court documents and legal proceedings, and to press officials on critical issues. I have contributed reporting to a multi-year project on patient harm, and have worked under the guidance of senior reporters and editors to investigate physicians who receive thousands of dollars in payments from pharmaceutical companies. Each week, I have been compensated $700 for my work. The intern who ProPublica hires to carry out this investigation will shoulder the same level of responsibilities, and will be paid the same way.

But this commonsense approach to labor doesn’t apply to many organizations in the current internship bubble. Employers who rely on unpaid interns to churn out large sums of work without pay are contributing to a failing system in which people on the lowest level of a professional chain are presented with two options: make do or get out. Many talented young people have chosen the latter. Their employers have, in essence, bet against them.

The impetus of any ProPublica story is moral force, and through this investigation, we will share stories of thousands of interns who have been subjected to unfair treatment by employers. With luck, we will do right by this thriving sector of the modern workforce. I hope you can help.

Hanna Trudo is a research intern at ProPublica. She was previously an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy, dually focused on print research and digital production; an intern at The New Republic; and a manuscript fact-checker for a historical book about global politics in 1979. 

Help this investigation by donating to our Kickstarter, or sharing your own intern story with our reporters.

Nice one Hanna!

The word for someone who does not get paid for work is “volunteer.” Lots of places think they can simply use the term “Intern” and they are absolved from paying anything. That is not the law and almost all unpaid internships that are advertised are illegal.
Such as this one http://www.onthemedia.org/internships/

Unfortunately, as long as there is a stream of new college students there may be a stream of unpaid interns.

I think a lot can be based on simple ecology. The more people there are to take the internships, the less valuable each person is. Competition for positions is so fierce that companies can offer unpaid labor and people will take it hoping that they will eventually get offered paid labor.

A well meaning article but you mention the intern economy and don’t mention any economic arguments in the rest of your article. I am a Recruiter and an economics graduate. I like to think of myself as an amateur labor economist, my friends I debate over them not getting overpaid think I’m an a**hole. I think applying supply and demand to the market could give you a different perspective on interns being paid.

I graduated in 2009, so I’m not an expert in any of this, but I like to think I was a part of the graduating class that was probably the least in demand in American history given the state of the economy at the time. I accepted an entry level position as a Healthcare Recruiter out of school and I’ve had the opportunity to get an outline understanding of how the labor market works economy recovers. As we recover the graduating classes are still meeting fewer good jobs than there are new college graduates. There is massive demand for degrees in technology and medicine, but there are too many students following their dreams into majors that frankly aren’t very in demand, if they aren’t paired with experience. Experience is what gets you in the door, it is what sets you apart from waves and waves of graduating classes that are applying to open entry level positions. Experience is what opens doors and organically builds your professional network. Experience is that hurdle that you are showcasing on your resume telling the reader you performed in a professional environment and another professional is willing to professionally vouch for you. Experience on your resume can get your foot in the door with a job in line with the career path you planned rather than taking a job that simply hires new college grads, like the recruiting industry.

That intern experience is also a huge learning curve that takes time to get up to speed. The cost to pay those with experience to train interns is costly in itself, the cost to pay the interns while they gain this valuable experience can multiply the total cost for this company to simply have this intern ready to contribute. After training is completed, the marginal benefit for a trained intern isn’t a fraction of the value of an employee that has 2-3 years of experience brings into the workplace. This is all assuming the intern is contributing to the company using skills or information gained in college. If this intern is simply getting coffee and making copies, paying them minimum wage couldn’t be justified versus hiring someone that has assistant experience for a slightly higher than minimum rate.

In any labor market if you impose restrictions it will hurt the market. If you force companies to pay people more money they will hire less people and cut back production or squeeze more out of the employees they have. If we diminish the employers demand fewer interns will be able to add that internship experience to their resume. That loss in training opportunity will take away from the education experience prior to entering the permanent labor force, and the american college graduates will only be hurt with less real world experience. In the global labor market we compete in, we need every opportunity we can take.

Alessandro Machi

June 12, 2013, 5:08 a.m.

I wrote a comment to/for the consumer financial protection bureau because they are looking to hire an unpaid intern.

I suggested that even unpaid interns should receive a transportation, wardrobe and food stipend equaling 50 dollars per day. It just makes sense to pay something if a company is actually relying on that person to be somewhere at a certain time, perhaps delivering something of importance to someone else, who is being paid.

Susan Winchester

June 12, 2013, 9:22 a.m.

You might want to start with the labor laws. I’ve wondered for a long time what exactly the law says about unpaid internships. It has never made sense to me that they are allowed.

I appreciate the sentiment in the article, but have to admit that—as a software engineer who has worked with both paid and unpaid interns over the years—I don’t think I agree with the premise.

First and foremost, a good internship is going to get you a better job out of college, period.  Every intern I’ve known, back to my own college days, graduated with a job with very little effort.  An unpaid internship with a well-run company isn’t a sunk cost at all, as far as I can tell.

About half the interns I’ve been working with have gotten jobs before their internship was technically over.  Almost all the rest were hired internally.  That’s a much better return on investment than whatever they’re paying for college.

To me, arguing that all internships should be paid is like saying that you should be paid to go to class instead of paying tuition.  The company is educating you and, largely, not getting a huge financial benefit from your work.  That may well be different in a field like journalism, but if you’re not learning how professionals in the field work and what the culture is like, then you shouldn’t be interning at such a company, even if it’s paid.

(As mentioned, bad companies that are just looking for free menial labor are breaking the law, so we can ignore them, I think.)

From the perspective of the company…I’m coming at this from a different angle, since I’ve never had to hire an intern, but my experience working with them is that paid interns are rarely worth having around.  They become incentivized by the minimal money at hand and—again, keep in mind I’m in a technical field—seem to become sycophantic, unwilling to take a stand for fear of losing their paycheck.  By contrast, I’ve yet to have an unpaid intern who went along with a stupid plan, and that’s the skill I’d much rather cultivate in future coworkers.

On top of everything else, I also think there’s a philosophical issue, here.  To me, if you need industry experience and you must get paid for it, then you don’t want an internship, you want a job.

@Will and @John - thanks for sharing your comments with us. It’s a valid perspective, and one we’re interested in exploring in future discussions. Stay tuned.

Thanks,
Blair Hickman, ProPublica

I can understand the logic behind those who argue that interns are a burden on the company, that it’s a learning experience, that there’s a supply/demand issue, etc.

However, I have yet to find a business-related excuse for not paying interns that is compelling enough to override the effective shutting-out of lower income students from career-building opportunities like internships.

Will DeSiervo

June 12, 2013, 1:31 p.m.

Sophia,

You answered your own question in your first paragraph, paying interns isn’t cost effective. This is a market economy that has to compete, companies can’t compensate employees for the sake of being fair, that’s not how business works. In any situation in a market economy disadvantages will have to be overcome. If you as an intern are valuable enough to be paid, there will be companies that will be willing to pay for your services while training you. If you are not skilled enough for an employer to pay you on top of training, why should the company pay you? We work in an economy where your pay is dictated by the market and what you can offer in relation to your peers. There seems to be an entitlement by students that they are valuable by their own standards and companies should pay them for their value.

Sophia, how do you think companies should regulate internship compensation? Being that you understand the logic of supply and demand, what would be a more efficient way of regulating the market? Why should low income students be allowed to enter the paid internship market but low income individuals without an education should not?

Thing is, if an internship offers college credit or is more of a burden to the business than the benefit they get then it is okay that the intern is unpaid.

It is not okay to ask someone to work for free. It should not be a controversial premise.

Blair, to clarify my comments, I’m very willing to have my opinion changed, and am hoping there’s something more substantial to the discussion than allegations of unfairness (which seems unlikely to be effective in the corporate world; the tactic certainly hasn’t worked well for women) and the idea that graduates need money.

To Sophia’s point, doesn’t college already filter out the majaority of underprivileged candidates?  I can’t think of many companies that’ll take an intern off the street; it’s usually part of a college program, and the majority of students are paying an arm and a leg to do that work, padding the same sorts of private pockets as company profits.

Of course, there’s a deeper problem here:  Most companies have abolished what we used to call “entry-level positions.”  Except for internal hiring of interns, it’s very hard to find a job opening that doesn’t require five years of work experience.  One imagines that the “internship culture” has some relationship to the decline of getting a crappy, low-paying job out of college and working your way up.

As a point of comparison, my first software job, back in the ‘90s, paid only slightly more than Hanna is getting as an intern.  So would a company really be saving with an intern—benefits, maybe?

Will DeSiervo

June 12, 2013, 2:18 p.m.

I agree with what a lot of John says. Entry level jobs have dried up as companies squeeze the budget, not looking to pay for training and the baby boomers had their retirement eggs shrink and they aren’t retiring as early creating a backup in company turnover.

Lee- No on is forced to take an internship. If there are people willing to apply and do the work for free, who has the right to tell them they can’t? If students need motivation to put in the work with no pay now for a better job down the line look at the minimum wage in agriculture and food service. If you need to earn an income while interning for free, take a second job, I did. Entitlement is only going to bite students in the behind. I guarantee you graduates in China, India, etc are willing to work harder for less. This is a global labor market and disincentivizing companies to give American students a foot in the door is a bad thing for this country.

Alessandro Machi

June 12, 2013, 5:08 p.m.

Why the polarizing discussion. No pay has built in moral hazards such as not doing the proper car maintenance yet relying on that car to get to the internship, paying full pop means it is a job.

Paying a daily stipend, aka per diem, is the logical compromise.

Plus, it allows those who are not wealthy or already indebted with student loans to afford the internship for a daily stipend only.

If any of these interns are recieving public assistance, then the rest of us are supporting private co.If they provide aservice compensate them.
This is part of the who you know or who you blow economy. Only good if your on the right side

Saralyn Fosnight

June 13, 2013, 10:44 a.m.

Another area that could use scrutiny is the so-called Senior Aides program. Under this program, poor people over age 55 (they can’t earn more than 125% of the federal poverty limit if they are on Social Security) are farmed out to firms that are mostly nonprofits. They can only work 20 hours a week and are paid minimum wage. They are not paid by the company (“host agency”) where they work; rather, they are paid by the federal government by a supervising agency. It’s easy to see that the host agencies have no incentive to hire these people, since why should they pay for something they are getting for free? The stated purpose of the Senior Aides program, however, is to train older people for jobs. As part of the program, participants are required to attend classes in writing resumes and looking for jobs and to actively seek jobs while they are in the program. This means while they are not at work they are required to send out a certain number of resumes every week. When I was in the program, various methods of documenting the job searches were required, from making lists of jobs applied for to getting people who agreed to interview you to sign documents saying you were interviewed. Unfortunately, in one case, I was required to take a proofreading test, which I know I passed, and I think the young woman who interviewed me thought I was “up to something.” What, I don’t know, but she got all squirrely when I asked her to sign this piece of paper saying she had interviewed me. Maybe she was worried that the government was peeking over her shoulder? I didn’t get an offer, needless to say.

After working more than two years at the same place, I was not hired and they decided not to be a host agency anymore. Theoretically, the aides are not supposed to stay at any one company for more than a year, but there weren’t enough host agencies for the supervising agency to shift workers around. Then, because of COLA raises to my Social Security check, I was no longer eligible to participate in the program, in which I was unhappy anyway. I have two degrees, and the work I did for one of the case managers wasn’t done by anyone else because the contract for that job didn’t cover the wages of an administrative assistant. When I left, the work I had been doing was given to an intern. This work was a full-time job. When I started at my host agency, three of us were doing the job. One person left the program, one person died, and I did it all, part time. When I was terminated, I got no notice and no one called to tell me of the change, so I went in to work, only to be told the news when I got there. All in all, my experience was pretty shoddy. The supervising agency didn’t like me either because I complained about infractions of their unenforced policies. People are sent to host agencies with the expectation that if they are good at their jobs, the host agency will hire them. So far as I know, this happened maybe four times a year. There is supposed to be a time limit for keeping people in the program, but the supervising agency didn’t stick with it. I know one person who was in the program over twenty (!) years, in its various incarnations.

Many of the aides I got to know had similar experiences. They were used for jobs the host agency did not hire staff to do. They were not “trained” to do much of anything. They only did what they already knew how to do. The men I worked with initially learned some limited computer skills, but only as they applied to the work we did. I don’t believe they could have taken these skills and worked elsewhere. Plus, after I started doing the job all by myself, it became more complicated because of reporting duties that were required to document what the host agency was doing for their contract with Cook County.

Since the job only pays minimum wage, no matter how long a person is in it, they do not get a raise. Most of the people in it needed the money to make ends meet, but of course in a job that is only part time, minimum wage, ends will never meet. My experience left me feeling that I had been abused. The host agency used my skills then cut me loose. There was nothing they could teach me because I already had more experience working in offices than many of the other aides, who had worked in low-level office jobs (like mail rooms) or in factories during their productive years.

If you’re angling for the fairness of the system, you are going to fail - this is basically how supply/demand works. As long as there are people willing to take the job for free, that will happen. You see the same thing in many other professions, albeit not that starkly - look at adjuncts teaching liberal arts classes at ivy league schools, biology PhD’s doing 5+ years of postdocs after graduation for 30-40k/yr. All caused by a glut of qualified people.

Now, where I think you could have an interesting angle is whether the whole internship system is actually detrimental to the company itself in the long run. Does the unpaid internship create a self-selection process that is inherently harmful? I don’t know if that is obvious. I think one could easily make a case that having political interns be unpaid is a direct danger, as we thus make sure the next generation of politicians are selected from people who could afford to volunteer for 2+ years. But is this true for business?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Internships

Internships

The number of internships in the United States has ballooned over the past few decades. But oversight and legal protection for unpaid interns hasn't kept up.

The Story So Far

The number of internships in the United States has ballooned over the past few decades. But oversight and legal protection for interns hasn’t kept up. We’re investigating companies that may be violating labor laws by employing unpaid workers, schools’ role in the issue and how it’s affecting American workers.

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