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Is an Unpaid Internship Just Exploitation?

Thu, Feb 16, 2012

Internship Information

For most college students, internships are seen as par for the course, a stepping stone on the way to real-world employment (as in, the kind that comes with a salary in exchange for services rendered). But the fact that companies offering internships are getting free labor may be a sticking point for some students, especially those that have held paying jobs before. Why should they give their services away for free? Doesn’t such an arrangement qualify as exploitation? In truth, this is rarely the case, thanks to laws in place meant to protect interns from being abused in some way. And like any working situation, the students stand to gain a lot from the experience, even if the working situation doesn’t result in a typical form of payment.

While some students might not be interested in what they see as an exploitative situation, they are perfectly welcome to eschew internships in favor of paying gigs (although they’re far more likely to be exploited in their position as a barista than in a highly controlled internship position). In reality, an intern stands to gain a lot by working for free. And when you really think about it, businesses that offer internships are actually gaining very little for their efforts. Anyone who calls internships exploitative may want to stop and consider just who is exploiting who here.

Businesses must first jump through a number of hoops in order to offer internships, especially those that are unpaid. For one thing, they must be a legal business entity, which could mean plenty of paperwork and fees just to get set up for the arrival of interns. Further, there is a lot of legwork to be done, including creating job descriptions and setting quantifiable tasks for the interns on staff. From there, a company must advertise their internship opportunities with local colleges and universities, who have the option to turn them down if there are any discrepancies in the paperwork.

Once they’ve completed the selection process, they’ll be stuck with an “employee” that can’t actually do any tasks that contribute to a company’s operation. This means that interns are limited to shadowing other employees and participating in training exercises only, thereby taking up time and resources but virtually offering nothing in return. And finally, a supervisor must report to the college regularly so that students can receive credit for their “work”.

Interns, on the other hand, receive quite a bit, including free training, course credit, and an entry for their résumés. So the question you should be asking, if any, is not whether internships are exploitative, but rather who is being taken advantage of in this situation. There’s a reason that a freelance writer, a truck driver, and a Bristol magician would never take on an intern: it’s too expensive! Of course, it’s not as though businesses that offer internships stand to gain nothing from the bargain. They have the opportunity to recruit burgeoning talent straight out of college, which is why so many companies end up offering to hire interns after their unpaid tenures. Internships provide the chance for companies to hire on a virtual blank slate at less cost than an experienced worker. And through internships they can hand-pick the students that best suit their needs. So while the situation may seem like exploitation from one viewpoint or another, the truth is that both parties stand to gain a lot in the long run.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. S. Says:

    This article completely misses the point. The writer assumes that any business offering an internship is an ethical one:
    “Once they’ve completed the selection process, they’ll be stuck with an “employee” that can’t actually do any tasks that contribute to a company’s operation. This means that interns are limited to shadowing other employees and participating in training exercises only, thereby taking up time and resources but virtually offering nothing in return. And finally, a supervisor must report to the college regularly so that students can receive credit for their “work”.”
    Only in a perfect world, sweetheart. I would be willing to bet that a significant portion of unpaid interns do, in fact, perform tasks that contribute to a company’s operation. As an unpaid intern who has done just that, I suggest the writer reexamine their facts. This is a shallow exploration into the issue of internships as free labor. Sure, some internships can be a great learning experience, but I believe the writer overestimates the costs and underestimates the benefits to companies by failing to acknowledge that they do not operate in an vacuum where ethics universal.

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