The One and Only Positive Use of Unpaid/Low-Paying Internships

What's your opinion of unpaid and low-paying internships?

There's a bitter ongoing debate about whether these internships serve any purpose at all when there are companies and entrepreneurs (though rare) willing to pay for your services.

You've probably heard a slew of nightmare stories from graduates and industry newbies with piling bills who are forced to settle for them, or perhaps even have a story of your own.

Some of the more vocal detractors go so far as to say unpaid and low-paying internships are even unethical.

No matter what side of the argument you're on, here's the truth about them: they're not all unethical. Unpaid and low-paying internships do serve a purpose, but the key is in the timing.

Here's an unfortunate reality you must face first.

Unpaid and low-paying internships are far more common than the paid variety.

According to author and linguist Ross Perlin, "an estimated quarter or third of all internships are unpaid, many more are low-paid as well."

And Perlin would know -- he was an intern himself. In fact he published his first book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy back in 2011 and appeared on MSNBC and NPR in 2012 about the subject.

The argument's gone national, too.

According to NPR's article and radio interview with Perlin, there are five landmark intern lawsuits against major for-profit corporations, including Hearst Corporation (media/magazine company), the famous Charlie Rose TV talk show on PBS, and even Fox Searchlight, producer and distributor of Hollywood box office smash Black Swan. There were hundreds of interns on the film's crew in very key fundamental roles (including on the production team), who were completely unpaid.

In the radio interview, Perlin mentions the Charlie Rose show made a settlement for a quarter-million dollars with the interns who sued.

The Hearst Corporation case didn't have such a happy ending. NPR reports that a New York judged ruled against a class action lawsuit of 3,000 interns versus Hearst in early May. They'll instead have to sue the company individually.

Here's when unpaid and low-paying internships are useful.

Don't graduate from college and transition into an internship. That's the worst time because at that point, you'll be desperate for work, stuck in a crowded market, and forced to settle.

Instead, start interning while you're still in school, and early. Perlin says some college students have to intern as often as four times while they're in school. The earlier you start your internships in school, the more time you'll have to choose carefully and weed out the unprofitable companies.

Here are at least two criteria you can use to weed them out.

Perlin explains you should be leery of any for-profit company that:

  1. requires a slew of skills from you then turns around and says they won't pay, or
  2. offer credits

In the latter case, your school assigns the credits, so the only way a for-profit can make that offer is if it truly has a solid working relationship with your school.

If you find this post useful, share it with your networks. Thanks for reading!

Flickr photo by stuartpilbrow.




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About the Author: Mellissa Thomas is a freelance writer, blogger, web content writer, copyeditor, proofreader, and authors three blogs: E.i. Geek (Blogger), her writing blog Mellifluity Inc. (WP), and The Tenderfoot Files, the online platform for her 5-ebook suspense series (WP). 

She has also self-published two books: a weekly devotional entitled From a Babe: A Weekly Devotional, and the first ebook of her 5-ebook suspense series, Abstracted: Episode 1 of the Tenderfoot Series.
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