The Business of Not Getting Paid: The Reality of Unpaid Internships

One of my close friends got a really great job this week. After just moving out to L.A. he found a company that he believed in and wanted to be a part of. Miraculously, they had a need in his area of expertise. The drive’s not bad. He likes the people he works with. The hours are reasonable. There’s just one slight catch…the job doesn’t pay a dime.

Anyone who has been looking for a job lately has probably noticed the disturbing trend of jobs that “Pay in Experience”. If you are in college, or have recently graduated, you understand the swarms of Unpaid Internships that must be navigated to find a paying job in the career field you have chosen. There’s one big ugly elephant in the room. You can’t pay rent with experience. It doesn’t buy groceries either. Obviously the only reason young people are willing to work for free is the hope that it will lead to lasting, lucrative, future employment.

However, there is some bad news on that front. In his article for Forbes “The Unhappy Rise of the Millennial Intern” Neil Howe, author of Millennials Rising and expert on generation trends reports that “for unpaid internships, students who have them are today hardly more likely to get a job offer (37 percent) than those who have no internship at all (35 percent).” Those lucky enough to find a paid internship have a 63% chance of landing a job upon graduation. Nearly double the odds of their peers who aren’t getting paid! This is dark news for the millions of young adults who work as unpaid interns annually. Ross Perlin, Author of Intern Nation, told USA Today in an interview that there are upwards of 1.5 million internships annually. Of these approximately 50% are unpaid.

Not only are unpaid interns hurt in the economic short term, they suffer in the long term as well. According to a study by NACE, the median salary offer following an unpaid internship is $34,400. Comparatively, paid internships saw a median job offer of $53,521.[1]

No matter which way you look at it, unpaid internships are a raw deal. This isn’t breaking news. I sincerely hope no one reading this just realized that working for free sucks. But despite this million upon millions of Millennials will apply to be interns both paid and unpaid every year. Why? Why would you subject themselves to the 21st century version of indentured servitude? One pretty simple reason, they have to.

In 1970 only 10% of the American population over 25 had a bachelor’s degree. Today that number has risen to 33%. In order to stand out from the crowd, millennials are doing anything they can. Including working for free. But is it worth it?

Unfortunately, that is a question that cannot be answered with a broad brush. Internships are not a one size fits all proposition. Making the decision about whether are internship is right for you is often very difficult. The hardest part is that sometimes it’s worth it. One of the biggest factors that can determine whether an internship (particularly one that is unpaid) is worth it is the human connection.

As cliché as it is, a large part of success depends on who you know and in this regard internships have the potential to pay huge dividends. As long as internships are used as a way to connect with other people in a meaningful way they are tremendously valuable. As unfortunate as it is, experience and ability only get you so far sometimes and the difference between success and failure can come down to the connections made (or not) during internships.

If you’re working for free, make sure to make an impression. Get to know people, ask questions, stand out! Easier said than done I know. While some companies believe that interns should be seen and not heard, others allow them to engage in meaningful ways. Look for these internships. These are the ones that can make or break a career.

But even if a company has great people, a great culture, and allows you to be involved and innovative, if it doesn’t pay you for your work it might not be the right fit. Some young adults are in a place financially that allows them to take unpaid jobs. For others student loans, rent, bills, insurance, and a plethora of other expenses make the prospect of working for “experience” unfeasible. For some now is the time they can go “all in” and focus on gaining experience and making lasting connections. For others immediate economic needs outweigh the potential benefits offered by unpaid internships.

If you are fortunate enough to be in a position financially to take an unpaid internship be grateful. You are lucky to have the opportunity. Take advantage of it, and do everything you can to make a mark, to make a connection to someone in the industry you can trust.

If you can’t, if working for free isn’t a reality for you don’t worry. The majority of people getting unpaid internships aren’t any more likely to get hired than you are. It’s ok to focus on taking care of today before you worry about tomorrow. Just like the people in those internships have to work at it, so do you. Search ceaselessly for paid work in your field, reach out to people, get any experience you can, and make new connections too! It’s ok, it’s hard trying to pay the rent with experience when most landlords want cash.

Internships are no panacea; no guarantor of future success, wealth, or happiness. That said, they have the potential to allow people to make connection and gain experience they might not otherwise have. Knowing when a job or internship is right for you is the most important part. Some opportunities you have to let pass, but when the right offer comes along you have to be ready to shoot your shot.