Unpaid Internship: Boon or Bane for Students?
Mon, April 19, 2021

Unpaid Internship: Boon or Bane for Students?

Unpaid internships are work experiences that are unpaid and temporary but enable an individual to participate in a professional work environment. / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123rf


Internships are something that almost all college students look forward to because this is a great opportunity for them to experience what it’s like to be in the workforce. For some, it is even a chance to start their career. Thus, many students would do anything to get the internship that they want, even if it means working for free. 

Unpaid internships are work experiences that are unpaid and temporary but enable an individual to participate and observe in a professional work environment. These are commonly offered to students who are just setting out in their careers to teach them about a particular industry they may be interested to join after graduation. For so long, unpaid internships served as an opportunity for students to build the foundation for their careers at the same time, for them to experience what it’s like to work with professional people.

However, unpaid internships have become controversial for the past years. Some think that these internships are a means for companies to exploit free labor, taking advantage of eager young workers who want to get on the career ladder without adding to their fixed cost. They insist that the programs they offer to these students will provide valuable experience. It was reported that in the US alone, about half of the 1.5 million internships available in the country each year were unpaid as of 2016. 

Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

Recently, calls have been made in Ireland to stop making use of unpaid interns after reports emerged showing that the government itself has been operating unpaid internships within the past five years. The Journal.ie, an internet publication with a mixture of original and aggregated content in Ireland, reported that 9 out of 17 government departments have confirmed they are either using or have used unpaid interns since August 2014. 

Josepha Madigan, minister for Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, stated that 17 students had worked as unpaid interns in the department since 2015. This also includes three unpaid interns this year that were “to honor a prior commitment made in good faith.” Apparently, internships are part of those who will gain national minimum wage rates. Richard Grogan, a solicitor specializing in employment law, stated that any intern is entitled to be paid under the law.

“If any government department is getting an unpaid intern to do this kind of work, it would be reprehensible and would represent an egregious breach of legislation and standards that they are meant to uphold,” he said.

However, this is not the case in many countries. For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 of the US states that any employee of a for-profit company must be paid for their work. Unfortunately, interns are not considered employees. Thus, many students have accepted the fact that internships are not selling their labor for zero wages. Instead, it's buying work experience for the price of their labor. 

Legal unpaid internships exist not only in the US but also in several countries across the world. This means thousands of students worldwide are being exploited for the future career they want.


About half of the 1.5 million internships available in the country each year were unpaid as of 2016. / Photo by: luckybusiness via 123rf


Unpaid Internships are Unethical

UpCounsel, an online marketplace for legal services that enable users to find and hire attorneys, stated that there are several criteria for unpaid internships. These include internships that only exist for the benefit of the intern, interns working closely under the supervision of current staff but don't fill the role of a regular employee, the employer does not receive direct advantage from the intern's activities, an intern is not guaranteed a job when the internship ends.

Many of us think that since unpaid internships are legal, they are also acceptable and justified. After all, the interns are learning marketable skills on the job, which are not taught inside the classrooms. While unpaid internships are legal, popular, and entrenched as a hiring practice, they are unethical. Companies should consider a fundamental ethical principle: if a person works, they should get paid. It’s important to know that providing wages and opportunities for learning and growth are not mutually inclusive. 

Unpaid Internships Reduce Chances of Job Offers

Another problem with unpaid internships is that some employers don’t value unpaid work as much as paid work. Many of them even see an unpaid internship as not being “a real job.” While most of us think that this will help us land a better job in the future, it’s not necessarily true.

According to GenFKD, a peer-to-peer educational platform dedicated to informing millennials about economic policy and financial self-sufficiency, a 2015 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed that students who took unpaid internships received fewer job offers compared to those who worked at paid internships. Aside from that, students with unpaid internships are offered significantly less money compared with paid internships.

Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, stated that unpaid internships have no impact just like having no internship at all. 

Unpaid Internships Worsen Income Inequality

Unpaid interns will not only receive fewer jobs and offered less money but also effectively shuts them out of their desired career paths. Only the privileged students will have better opportunities. According to Fast Company, a business media brand, women are more inclined to accept unpaid internships than men, which only worsens the problem with unpaid internships. Most of the time, unpaid interns would willingly accept anything or less than they’re worth because there are no great opportunities for them.

Unpaid internships also tackle how people are willing to work with less salary just to gain knowledge or pay their bills. This suppresses wages across the board and reinforces the notion that one works “for the love of it” rather than needing a wage to cover basic needs.

Indeed, students should be knowledgeable enough to understand that unpaid internships have no positive outcome in their studies and careers. They deserve to be able to find a working experience that will pay them and teach them the necessary skills for their future jobs.