March 26, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 47°F


Commentary: Unpaid internships do not pay off

You need experience to get a job. You need a job to get experience. As is often the case, to get experience, you settle for an unpaid internship. Students ask, is the experience of an unpaid internship worth it? Probably not.

Throughout my college career thus far, I have completed four unpaid internships and have made $250. These internships included technical and marketing operations for a play for Capital Fringe, a theater festival in Washington, D.C.; social media management for a local music journalism website; social media and website management for a music school in Maryland; and digital strategist for a woman who works for the district government of Washington D.C. I received travel stipends for the first and the last internship.

I found it very easy to argue with myself that I got what I deserved. I did not work very hard to secure these internships. I hardly completed a lengthy application process and merely settled for the easiest internships I could secure. In the cases of the Capital Fringe play and the DC Music Download social media, I felt like I didn’t do enough work to warrant payment anyway. After the music school internship, I have been hired during breaks with generous pay. The case where I felt like the employer might have taken advantage of me was the personal project of the woman in the D.C. government.  

Often, students are unaware that unpaid internships are regulated by the U.S. Department of Labor, let alone that they have legal rights. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, an unpaid internship must meet the following criteria to be considered legal: the internship is similar training as which would be given in an educational environment, it is for the benefit of the intern, it does not displace regular employees, the employer does not derive immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, the intern does not necessarily entitle a job at its conclusion and does not entitle wages for the time spent in the internship.

For the digital strategy internship, I felt as though I was the one saving the promotional plan that the employer had laid out. I proposed an alternate plan based on public relations strategy that I learned in class, but as if I was the one doing the training. I felt as if I did benefit from the internship because it simulated consulting experience; however, as a student, I didn’t think I could get paid as a consultant. I ended up creating a website for the employer, who had previously hired a website programmer out of an agency and was dissatisfied with the original product that was delivered.

According to the Department of Labor regulations, I believe that I would have a case for an illegal internship. However, I am hesitant to call it illegal because the work was for a cause that I believe in, the empowerment of families against gentrification. The work was also considered nonprofit work. Nonprofits are not held to Department of Labor regulations. Companies typically label the work as a volunteer opportunity as a way to circumvent an illegal internship. The definition of a volunteer that the FLSA and state wage and hour laws provide is vague, but basically is marked by giving free time to religious, charitable, civic, humanitarian or similar nonprofit organizations as a public service. Unless you really believe in the work that you are doing and would rather give your time than get paid, then there is no reason to reject volunteer opportunities.

Surely, I am frustrated about my past experience, but I would rather put my past unpaid internships behind me in favor of focusing on getting paid internships and a job in the future. Even though you need experience to get a job, an unpaid internship experience is not always the right one. Don’t just take what you can get. Work hard to get the best work.