The paid internship was miserable because I was a replacement for a salaried employee and was expected to work 50 hours a week while making $9 per hour and not being paid overtime ... With my unpaid internship, I had so much more freedom and if I couldn’t come in, it wasn’t a big deal.” —Meredith Kenyon
Exactly how beneficial are unpaid internships?
Because of last week’s ruling by a federal court judge that Fox Searchlight Pictures was out of line for not paying interns who worked on the film “Black Swan,” the legality of unpaid internships is now a popular debate topic.
According to U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III, the film distribution company violated New York’s minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns. Since his decision, many have questioned the efficacy of unpaid internships all together.
“It’s a great way for young students to get their foot in the door” is the explanation most often used to justify the free labor. But Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic isn’t convinced it’s as effective as some might hope.
“The common defense of the unpaid internship is that, even if the role doesn't exactly pay, it will pay off eventually in the form of a job,” Weissmann wrote Wednesday morning. “Turns out, the data suggests that defense is wrong, at least when it comes to college students.”
According to Weissmann’s data, which he gathered from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, college students who received no payment for their internship are only 2 percent more likely to get a job offer than those with no internship at all. Paid internships, on the other hand, increase the likelihood of an offer by roughly 24 percent.
Weissmann also points out that according to the NACE, those in paid internships are more likely to receive a job offer directly from the institution they worked for than those in unpaid internships: While 36 percent of paid interns were asked to stay on after the conclusion of their internship, only 17 percent of unpaid interns received the same treatment.
But there are still those who think unpaid internships are beneficial to companies and students.
When the Wall Street Journal asked participants in its “Class of 2013” project — a series on the newspaper’s website that allows recent college graduates to sound off about various subjects — whether they preferred paid or unpaid internships, many recent grads were quick to come to the defense of their experiences working for free.
“The paid internship was miserable because I was a replacement for a salaried employee and was expected to work 50 hours a week while making $9 per hour and not being paid overtime,” responded Meredith Kenyon. “It wasn’t a learning opportunity and when I made a mistake I was punished as if I had been doing the job for 5 years. With my unpaid internship, I had so much more freedom and if I couldn’t come in, it wasn’t a big deal.”
Stephany Pleasant, who worked as an unpaid intern for an attorney general’s office, recognizes that not receiving payment was a burden on her financially, but she does not regret it one bit.
“I used it as a way to decide if law was really what I wanted to go into,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “I wanted to make sure I could do the mundane law work and not just dream of being in a court room.”
The divide seems to be whether internships should be seen as valuable educational opportunities or fast-track entrances to a career. Either way, the future of unpaid internships appears to rest on rocky ground.