The Problem of Unpaid Internships

Unpaid internships, by law, have to cost the company more than they benefit the company. If it isn’t essentially community service, your company is breaking the law.

The reality is always more complicated than the soundbite, though, right?

Pre-pandemic, I was a college professor for income and had started an early stage tech company that wasn’t near the “has money to pay anyone (including myself)” stage. When I wasn’t teaching this summer because of low enrollment and a bunch of students’ internships were canceled because of the timing of the pandemic and I took on 25 and essentially gave them a semester of my engineering technology course project where I’d fill out any requested paperwork so they could get credit for an internship from their university and I wouldn’t be get paid. I gave them autonomy of schedule so they could work around a paying job while getting that credit. Everything was remote. They worked the hours they could — 10, 20, 40- whatever. Their feedback was positive — they learned a lot. So did I! Most of their output is not usable for our company, but a some here and there is. The number of hours I put into teaching, training, and managing them was more than the sum of the usable output. And that’s exactly how it should be.

At the same time, the energy they brought to my company when I was home with my son and trying the work/homeschool simultaneously thing was really valuable and motivating to me. They were each amazing humans, incredibly capable, and I’m lucky to have known them. I love teaching, and that’s what I went into it looking for. (More on this experience in a future article)

It was a special situation because of the pandemic, but if we (as a society) have unpaid internships, that’s what it needs to look like. And, legally, that’s what it is required to look like. They have to benefit more than we do.

I was a poor kid and worked unpaid internships around other jobs, but I couldn’t take full time unpaid like the kids coasting off their parents’ money, and there are long term impacts to that inequality. I would like that inequality to not exist. But at the same time, my “unpaid internships” were really apprenticeships essential to my learning. People doing great work who had little time sat down with me to help me be a better investigator and scientist and to teach me. I broke things and spilled things, and they were generous and offered their time and teaching (their labor) and supplies for free while I offered my much less effective labor back. If they had to pay me on top of what they were already putting in, it wouldn’t have happened and I wouldn’t have had the skills I needed for starting my career. That apprentice-type work that is costly to them was essential to me finding the work that best fit me and to showing up to my paid work down the line educated/trained in my crafts.

So, seeing it from both sides, I recognize that unpaid internships usually happen at the line between “I’m paying for you to teach me and for materials in this class/practical/lab/apprenticeship” and “I’m being paid for viable output”

Where the cost of a class or lab has an avenue to be covered by federal and state grants and loans programs to boost that equality, and the later paid labor is accessible either way (let’s set aside visa issues for a moment), that in-between line where they aren’t paying you and you aren’t paying them, but everyone still has to eat doesn’t have a strong national or state or city social program to support it.

Doing nothing perpetuates this inequity. Ending these free apprenticeships/unpaid internships systemically means drastically shrinking the availability of these experiences to students looking for them(especially to those students with slightly lower grades and resumes less packed with career-relevant accolades), which isn’t a solve for this problem and compounds inequities already in place, restricting experiences to those already ahead. What is our solve for this?

CEO of Connect Wolf, professor, tinkerer, operations nerd, recovering scientist, and mama.