The unpaid internship epidemic

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During my job search process, I have stumbled across multiple advertisements for unpaid internships. The lack of pay seems to be prevalent in many industries. I have also noticed that quite possibly due to this increase of unpaid positions, some companies even choose to specifically write “PAID” as many times as they can in their postings in order to distinguish themselves in the labor market. Their main competitive advantage being the low to average wage they are offering to potential candidates.

In this blog post, I will be discussing the issues with as well as causes and effects of unpaid jobs. Now, this is not a new topic. Many, which I will be linking to throughout this article, have taken the time to research and analyse the issue. However, I still wanted to add in my perspective on the topic.

Prepare yourselves, this is going to be a long one.

“Paid” internships

Let’s start with internships specifically listed as “PAID”. Usually this descriptor is put as part of the job posting title, but similar words are also placed conspicuously throughout the advertisement itself. It is as if the advertisers are saying: ‘Look, we are unlike others. We pay’. Oh, how charitable of them! What a luxury it is to get paid! One would expect that the pay is a normal and rational outcome of completing tasks for an entity. How has the market allowed to normalize the lack of pay to the extent that companies are now using the salary as a way to attract candidates?

Paid by you internships

A recent new trend has been of potential candidates paying a third party to be placed within an international or a big company as an intern. The number of companies offering this ‘experience’ has been increasing in the past few years. These companies (I will not be linking to any, but one can easily find with them with a quick Google search) sell the idea of an experience of a lifetime, which will be ‘abroad’, and with a promise of being much more than a regular internship. The idea is that you will receive the experience you need in order to get a full-time entry-level job easier and faster. However, it seems unreasonable to ask those looking for work experience to provide amounts of over 2,000 dollars per 2 to 6 week programme. Some of this amount may go towards accommodation and other fees, but most remains for the company that finds you the placement.

The demands for having work experience before starting an entry-level position have become so intensely vicious that such companies have appeared. And with a right to do so. After all, most of this world lives in a capitalist state which bases itself on the idea of supply and demand. This stimulates the production of unique ideas in the hopes of tapping into new market opportunities. The promise of a lifetime can be luring to many, but only to those with a certain amount of resources. This limits a great amount of the population (this will be further discussed in following paragraphs). It turns out that only those financially stable enough to afford this program at a world renowned company can have access to this supposedly higher echelon of people and work opportunities. Survival of the fittest at its peak.

Unpaid internships

In their article, TIME provide a brief summary of how unpaid internships came to be as well as their legality in the U.S. Though laws differ from country to country, most unpaid internships are considered borderline illegal. In the UK, an institution is not required to pay a wage to ‘voluntary workers’, when ‘work shadowing’ is taking place or when the experience is part of an academic requirement for a placement year. Only those considered as ‘workers’ or ‘employees’ can receive a wage. However, the sentiment of classing their employees is at the hands of businesses. How much can this assessment be trusted is unclear.

In Britain, a study found that most unpaid internships are in retail or the arts. Some even are in their fourth or fifth unpaid positions leaving them feeling trapped in a never-ending ‘internships cycle’. In the European Union, some institutions still have over 5% of unpaid interns and the numbers are even higher for positions over Europe. Recently, the EU banned unpaid internships in their MEP offices, however, even the article admits that as much as this is a step forward, there is still a long way to go before the full recognition of “interns’ rights”. The proliferated appearance of unpaid internships nowadays has been referred to as an epidemic with reference to the U.S. situation. This epidemic has become so widespread that it has led to youth activism fighting these sometimes illegal unpaid internships.

What can one person’s motivation to work without pay be? Factors such as stable future, career advancement, and relevancy have been viewed as great motivators. Money – , especially in the workplace, not so much. It has often been said that money is just not enough. Though only those able to afford not getting paid would be focused on motivators apart from money. To them, their future stability is much more important as they are currently more or less stable due to having certain resources coming mostly from their families. However, to the rest of the population, money is not only a motivator, but also a necessity for their job.

Many companies choose to lure students with the idea that the unpaid internship will give them something in return such as “valuable experience” or a training. This may be the case for some of the employers out there, however, not everyone is conscientious enough to fulfill their promises or think of the future of the intern. Such intangible compensation can be hardly measurable; thus, hardly traceable for being performed. Offerings such as networking, online courses, etc. may be considered as part of the transaction, but are they worth it? Most importantly, who has the luxury to consider their worth in exchange for monetary compensation?

Who would be able to do unpaid internships?

Labor market has become tougher over the past decade and the situation seems to be worse for women and graduates from minorities. Due to these conditions, individuals are seeking a variety of ways to distinguish themselves whether it be through volunteering or internships. Many also choose unpaid positions in the hopes that the experience will push them into entry-level jobs easily. We are all aware of the cycle in which employers request experience for entry-level jobs, but one is unable to find the first experience, on repeat.

To me it seems like the more individuals choose to take on unpaid internships, the more these become normalized and the more the market is saturated with them. Thus, individuals part of this trend (due to whatever personal reasons they may have such as trying to kickstart or switch their careers) suggest to employers that there are candidates willing to work without pay. From what I have seen, many of my friends accept their first jobs or internships with some compromise. It is some sort of sacrifice of pay, place, job responsibility, company, with the hope that a return on their investment will be achieved.

I am not trying to blame the existence of unpaid positions to those who choose to undertake such positions, but a process of normalization occurs on both the employer and the employee sides. The problem should not be sought in the consequential undertaking of unpaid roles, but on the cause –  those that offer them.

Furthermore, most of those that I am exposed to, come from middle or higher class families. They seem to be able to afford an unpaid experience if they see it may aid them in the future. But to me, these internships seek to, as one Twitter user put it in this article, “filter poor people out of the skilled work pool”.

Some do not have the luxury to just work for free or quit their paying jobs. Some are not so lazy that they can’t juggle 3,4,5 jobs. A point has to be made here about the overgeneralized media and societal view of millennials and their ‘lazy’ patterns. It simply is skewed. As with any other generation there are less and more hard-working people. Moreover, who is to define hard work when conditions and times have changed so much that many job positions did not exist 10/20 years ago. One man’s intelligence is another man’s lack of knowledge and the same goes with hard work. It can be anything from an 8 hour day on the field to an 8 hour day of online research on competitors. But who is to argue with some motivational speakers, memes, quotes, coaches, who promote hard work as a hasty remedy to achieving any goals [some of my favourite critiques of motivational speakers can be found here, here, here and here ]. Because yes, scrubbing the floor ‘harder’ will eventually lead you to your dream career or life goal. As you can see, most points of view in this world are overgeneralized. And yes, I have also overgeneralized.

Let’s get back to the point that these unpaid internships are a form of discrimination towards individuals coming from lower income backgrounds. Unpaid internships can be considered as a form of keeping minorities or those from poorer backgrounds away from certain work spaces. The European Ombudsman has called for European institutions to consider paying their interns due to the fact that “Unpaid traineeships may perpetuate social exclusion by de facto preventing some young people from enhancing their skills and qualifications, which can have a knock-on effect on their further careers”. Having in mind that many companies campaign for diversity in their websites or even job postings, the exclusion of certain groups of people through the unpaid internships scheme seems unfair.

Moreover, in this article and this one, the phenomenon has been referred to as a form of “glass ceiling”. Many feel trapped in the life of an intern and end up taking on internship positions for 4 or 5 years. Due to the fact that many consider responsibilities and ability to make an impact on the world as a necessity for a job, they are willing to make certain sacrifices to reach that kind of a position. With the hope of making an impact in the future, these people overwork themselves for internships that do not pay. In their minds “working unpaid is just part of the process” as one interviewee mentioned. This seems like an awful thing to normalize, especially when it is coming on the side of the interns.

Against unpaid internships

First off, let’s get one thing straight. A company seeking to reduce the amount of resources they use (people, electricity, etc.) while also wanting to increase their output seems quite reasonable in a capitalistic way of thinking. Looking at the numbers is easy just as any other bureaucratic work, but what hides behind the numbers are often human beings with goals and feelings. From a business point of view, they are keeping up with the economy – hiring the best for as little as they can, but from the intern’s side, the lack of pay seems unjust, demeaning and dehumanising. Would it be too much of a cliche to now add in that there are always two sides to any story? I will let you be the judge of that.

Most people have debated for unpaid internships because they consider them as an opportunity to network and gain access to the industry as I have previously mentioned. Here the author has boldly stated “Unpaid internships are about choice: choosing knowledge over money”. However, not everyone is able to make THAT choice. Plus, why should one fresh graduate of any age have to pick between either. Suggesting a first job must be either a valuable experience or a sustenance is quite backward looking. A few lines below this statement,  the author claims that “What’s repulsive is the idea that we should value money above all else”. No, no. An individual who wants to be paid as much as anyone else in exchange for a certain amount of work should not be considered greedy. How will that person live on this planet without getting paid if they do not have an external party to support them? Moreover, the truth is that unpaid internships are not “optional setting stones to get you where you are going”.

And after all, as one interviewee in this article mentioned, “experience does not pay the rent”. Some more skeptical views from Twitter on unpaid internships can be found here. Most of them have shared their bad stories of unpaid internships, but what is prevalent is the argument that such jobs devalue the work of people.

Another outrageous argument for the existence of unpaid internships is that one can negotiate their salary in the process. But if there are already consenting individuals to working without a wage just to ‘get somewhere’ in their career, then how likely are those seeking to negotiate a salary to get or remain hired?

As with other market-related debates, there is a business case at play here as well. Mostly, the business case is against unpaid internships. In their article, Cheronne discusses how “unpaid internships can hurt employer brands”. Such job postings would potentially affect how they are being viewed by current and potential employees, by media or by any other interested parties. Check for example this case of an intern having to camp in a tent in Geneva while working for the UN and let me know how that changes (or does not) your perception of the UN.

In conclusion, unpaid internships exclude lower income individuals, perpetuate traditional thinking towards a job and may stain a company’s reputation.

Things to consider before an unpaid internship

Well if you are in a position to undertake such an internship, you are lucky. Some people have actually been able to manage unpaid internships, which have proven useful to them in the long run. But to others that may not have been the case. I guess in the end of the day it is all about thinking if the internship would REALLY bring value to you. And that deliberation can be quite tough, so consider the following things.

– Type of work

    • Check the job posting and what it involves. Is it just coffee bringing? How many hours/days per week? Would you do an unpaid internship for 5, 10, 20, 40 hours per week? You may want or need to take another part-time job to support yourself.
    • Don’t forget to discuss your actual job responsibilities with interviewers or any hiring manager. In case you end up doing more of the admin/secretarial type of work, which you may not want to do at the moment, then you need to have a plan if you were to choose to leave. For this you should consider your options for quitting, which ought to be clearly stated in the agreement you have initially made with the company. Always have the way out planned.

– Cost

    • Check out these articles on the cost of unpaid internships in London and the U.S. and think whether you would be able to afford it.
    • Think about what and how much you will have to sacrifice in order to complete this internship. Don’t forget to also consider whether, when, and in what shape you will see a return on your investment for this particular internship.

– Company

    • Big corporation or a start-up? What is the industry? Does it suit your future goals?
    • Is it non-profit as they may not have the funding for it?

– What does your ideal internship look like?

    • Before embarking on the journey of an unpaid internship, consider what your perfect internship would look like and if the position you are being currently offered is to some percentage close to that vision.
    • Think about pay, learning curve, responsibilities, fair treatment, mentorship system, satisfaction out of job done.

– Offerings

    • I know I have previously bashed on the offerings, but sometimes if they are quantifiable, tangible, and part of the agreement you are signing, you may consider taking the position.
    • Think about how the things being offered to you will help you find a job elsewhere. Do not rely on getting hired in the same company following the internship as the company may choose to hire another intern to substitute you.
    • Are you allowed to take online/offline courses? Will you participate in meetings and have an opportunity to speak? Any connections you may make? Anything that you think will bring value to your future career goals.
    • Some internships offer housing and food. Is that a bonus or not enough for you?

– Will you be getting a reference letter?

    • Discuss this with the one hiring you (maybe not before actually getting hired, but during the period of the internship).
    • How will the reference letter look like? Will it help you in finding a future job?

– Chances of getting hired

    • As mentioned above, the chances of getting hired at the same company of your place of internship may be slim, but definitely discuss them with the hiring manager and request examples of previous interns who have been hired full-time to show a pattern of willingness to do so.
    • Can you use this position as a stepping ladder?

[This article is where I found some of my inspiration for the above-mentioned considerations.]

The problem is that most times, one may not be able to fully answer the questions I have suggested above before taking the position. Some responsibilities or lack of such show up on the day-to-day basis, but if you try to satisfy at least a few of your goals for an internship then you are a step closer to your ideal one.


Unfortunately, today’s work climate is constantly changing and becoming challenging. Future employees are unfortunately forced to lower their standards and increase their willingness to compromise. This perpetuates the disrespect towards equality of opportunities and outcomes that so many companies vow their commitment to. What we should aim to do is call out those that do not offer salaries in order to create a future job market that consists of happier and more satisfied employees.

Let me know if you have ever done an unpaid internship and if it helped you or not in your future career goals. I would like to hear more from you.

[I discovered a website which is a collection of intern organisations. Check it out if you are interested – ]

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