Should Interns Be Paid or Unpaid?

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Giving away cashIt’s one of the most hotly contested issues around right now. No we aren’t talking about Alex Rodriguez and Biogenesis. We aren’t even talking about Obamacare. The hot debate lately has been over whether interns should be paid or unpaid.

Over the last few weeks, this story has been front and center. On Aug. 14, the Lean In Foundation’s Editor-At-Large, Jessica Bennett, posted on her personal Facebook page that she was looking for a “part-time, unpaid” intern. The post had many positive responses, even \ from those who were interested in the part-time gig. It was the negative responses that really put fuel on the fire. Gawker’s Valleywag blog picked up on it and the heat was on. A few days later, Lean In Foundation’s president, Rachel Thomas, posted on its Facebook page that they would start a paid internship program.

Now, on Aug. 20, media giant Conde Nast announced they will not pay its interns anything at all (they were getting a stipend). Earlier this summer, two former interns filed suit against Conde Nast over wages. It seems like the currents are getting stronger and strong for paid internships.

However, let me make one point. When I interned at a Philadelphia area television station in the mid-90s, I wasn’t paid. When I did my internship at a radio station during that same time period, I wasn’t paid. Should I have been? Honestly, I never thought I should. I was getting paid with experience. Because of that experience, I got my first job after graduating. Then, I was paid.

While I believe that some internships should be paid, does that mean every single one must be? No. If you do a ten-hour-a-week internship, do you deserve pay? I’m not so sure. Now, if you are working at a PR agency and doing the equivalent of what a junior account executive would do, you should get some reimbursement.

This paid versus unpaid debate will go on until there are better rules in place on what should govern a stipend or some other form of payment. Interns that aren’t being paid shouldn’t be taken advantage of. However, potential interns shouldn’t go in assuming they should be paid, either.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Matt LaCasse

    I had similar experiences, Jason. My internship at WBIG in Rockville, MD was unpaid..but I gained ridiculous amounts of experience. Not to mention knowledge of how the industry works and contacts I still maintain in 2013. I agree that this isn’t a black/white issue. There’s shades of grey here but I feel like most companies should probably be offering minimum wage to interns. It won’t break the bank and it gives the interns SOMETHING to live off of. Especially if they’re in a city where they don’t know anyone or have a place to stay on the cheap.

  • Meghan Warren

    The issue with unpaid internships is that they lock out those who can’t afford to work for free (and I say this as someone who benefitted tremendously from being privileged enough to take unpaid internships).

    Internships as a whole have become the best way (and often the only way) to get your foot in the door in a fairly substantial number of industries–given the choice, I’m willing to bet that most hiring managers would choose the junior-level candidate with internship experience over the one that worked retail to pay the bills in college–and I’m not at all comfortable with any sort of system that perpetuates economic disparities right out the gate. Sure, internships “pay in experience,” but that doesn’t cover tuition, rent or, y’know, food.

    Maybe this wouldn’t be an issue if internships were still a bonus and not a necessity, but unfortunately, they’ve become the new barrier to entry.

  • Lauren Drogo

    I definitely agree that not all internships need to be paid ones. The whole point of an internship is to learn from a company in the field that you interested in and get a hands-on experience to see if it is something you would want to continue on doing.

    With that said, those who are involved in unpaid internships should be given a chance to learn all the skills possible, but shouldn’t be taken advantage of by higher up workers and pushed around. The same goes with those who are in paid internships. Just because they are paid, doesn’t mean they should feel that they are better than or equal to the workers who have been there longer than they have. Internships are a learning experience, and a great one at that.

  • Amanda

    Internships are a must nowadays. You need 2-3 internships to even get considered for a job after graduation. Yes, the point of an internship is to get hands on experience working the field of your choice, but that is not to say that experience should come for free. I think if you are putting in work and time for a company that you should be paid something regardless of your experience level. Especially since many internships do have a lot of work associated with them and leave little or no time for other activities such as a part time job. The experience you are getting, while may pay off later, won’t cover your current rent, food, or living expenses.