Sounding off on unpaid internships

Developers at work. Internships are "stepping stones" to a great career path, but should interns expect to be provided with a stipend or do they have to provide free labor? Photo by: Sebastiaan ter Burg / CC BY

Internships are a great way to break into international development, but should you go into an unpaid program? Devex’s resident career expert Kate Warren tackles this complex issue in her most recent Career Matters blog post.

Devex readers were quick to share their thoughts based on their experiences with internship programs.

“My paid internships were excellent, but my unpaid internship was disorganized and gave me little real work experience,” JoEllen Marsh said in response to Kate’s suggestion that unpaid internships often provide more training and experience that paid programs since organizations tend to provide real substantive work in lieu of monetary compensation. “The more substantive the work, the more value interns bring to an organization, and in return they should at least receive minimum wage or a stipend if that’s all the organization can afford.”

Susan Pratt echoed Marsh’s sentiment: “Labor which is provided for free is not much valued by an organization. If you are not paying for it, you don’t bother to utilize it fully. That goes for providing labor for free as well — I am doing your organization a favor, and if something more important comes up, I have no obligation. If you pay me, I do have an obligation.”

Another problem with unpaid internships, according to both women, is that it keeps talented people from getting into international development and thus negatively impacts the diversity of the people in the field.

“All interns should be paid, and non-profits looking to better the world should lead the way in acknowledging that everyone deserves fair pay. That is one of the biggest battles we are fighting in the developing world, isn’t it?” Pratt added.

“I realize at times this isn’t the intention of a perspective employer, but I feel insulted when someone with my resume and my academic qualifications is even offered an unpaid internship,” Paul Ruffner claimed. “The whole concept implies that time is money for the employer, but that the [intern’s] time is valueless, or more accurately, that it is not as valuable as the employer’s time or organizational goals.”

Unpaid internships can really be rewarding — if done right, Benson Nsunwara argued. These can also help them decide if their line of work is something they truly want to do permanently.

“I think the real challenge for companies that use interns is the quality of their internship program. A company that doesn’t provide useful or engaging tasks for the student, doesn’t teach the student anything new about the industry or field, assigns silly and mundane tasks and refuses to pay the student is, in my opinion, one that should be avoided.”

What has been your experience in paid or unpaid internships? Do you think employers should be required to pay interns even if it means less opportunities and less substantive work? What are you looking to get out of an internship?

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  • Yula Marie Mediavillo

    Yula Mediavillo shapes the “look” of Devex every day in her role as photo editor and content manager. Yula also helps to design news-related web features and explore ways to better present information to the Devex audience via our website, newsletters and social media.