Unpaid internships may be obsolete after the pandemic (so stop arguing)

Earlier in March, a viral tweet promoting an internship sparked a fiery debate on Twitter about the ethics of unpaid internships. But like so many aspects of our careers, the pandemic has impacted the future of internships, especially those without compensation. Could arguing about it be completely moot?

The debate arises again

NFL Network reporter Jane Slater posted an opportunity to an unpaid internship on Twitter that was angled toward broadcast journalism students. Slater received a ton of backlash by other journalists and others saying that students should know their worth and that unpaid internships are outdated in the current world, especially with many news organizations launching unions and fighting for equal pay.

“I posted an opportunity for an unpaid internship and I’m amazed the comments I get. It’s not even for me,” Slater said in a follow-up tweet. “It’s for someone else and I would have jumped at it in college. I had 3 unpaid internships in school, double majored and had a job. SMH.”

You can go to her Twitter to see the replies, with some advocating for such experiences and others saying that no one should accept an internship that doesn’t come with a pay stub.

In Slater’s case, she said in follow comments that she made $16,500 in her first two years in the business, which she equated to grinding — or putting in the time — in the industry.

Others were quick to point out that Slater’s grandfather was the former president of Wolf Brand Chili, which afforded her the opportunity to take unpaid work. (She was even quoted saying she received financial support in college from her family.)

In this case, someone was able to take a chance in their career due to their privilege but not everyone is fortunate enough. Beyond getting paid a measly stipend, companies don’t always cover transportation costs and for workers just getting their feet wet, they will either have to commute or even temporarily move to take on prized internship opportunities.

Whether it’s paid of unpaid, an internship can be a great opportunity for a young professional to understand the first moments of the career they’ve chosen. In many cases, it can be the first steps of a dream career or even be a wake-up call for someone who finds out that it’s not what they had planned for. There’s invaluable experience if you’re actually going to be put to work and be able to emulate employees around the office and not just be pressed with clerical tasks like getting coffee or running errands. (Employers have to pay you do those types of things.)

Regardless on your position, an unpaid internship can provide that grind that Slater alluded to. It can be a powerful negotiating point for when someone searches for their first job that shows more about personality and can help an employer get to know someone’s worth ethic.

“I think the interesting thing for someone who took an unpaid internship would show humility — humility and ambition,” Keystone Partners Vice President Brenda Stanton told Ladders recently.

“It shows to a future employer that you did whatever it took and it would be a good opportunity for someone to share that story in an interview where they could stand out from other people that may have not gone to that length to get that experience.”

Stanton isn’t advocating for not taking money, but as a career coach, she said that unpaid internships can provide plenty of benefits compared to the cons. Stanton said she’s all for the employee and equality and is aware that unpaid internships are not for everyone (especially those that cannot afford it), but there are several benefits that are worth outlining.

Real-world feedback

Just because you aren’t being paid for your work doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. This essentially falls on the intern and employer to establish a game plan for how the internship can be a valuable experience despite not earning any cash. Typically, companies can offer course credit as a way around paying an intern (which can be valuable), but the real prize is getting real work experience and not sitting on the sidelines.

Stanton said businesses can create programs tailored to giving an intern the most real-life experience as possible. That means actually doing work rather than just being labeled the kid in the office.

“The tricky thing is that what we don’t want to do is set a precedent for someone that is not experienced yet. They’re still in school and getting their sea legs,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is set a precedent for someone that they should be settling for less than what they deserve. That’s where we run into trouble with employer and employee. If an employer can show this as a valuable and viable program that they’ll technically graduate from, it can increase the self-worth from it.”

These types of programs are often offered at big business firms that tend to pay employees for their work, but essentially groom them for the job that they would be working were they to be hired full-time after graduating. To use Slater’s example, giving an unpaid internship valuable field work to build their own clips and acquire bylines is a good stepping stone for someone trying to break into the business.

That also sets up the opportunity to see how your craft matches against employees.

“It could provide incredible feedback from other people who have been in the work world. You get invaluable experience that might not get from a professor or co-student; it’s an interesting way to get feedback,” she said.

The other big piece of any internship is being able to network, whether inside the company or elsewhere. If things go well at any internship, it could lead to future job opportunities whether with the company that one is interning with or perhaps one that an employee that works already knows someplace else.

“(An internship) can provide career clarity. You can kind of learn what the real world is like, specifically what you like and don’t like, and that can help direct your future,” Stanton said. 

The future of internships

Like anything work-related, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many ways in which work will be done in the future. Companies have adopted hybrid working arrangements long after the pandemic even as vaccines continue to be distributed around the country.

The future of internships could change too. The Conversation laid out three ways to make paid internships a prerogative, which starts with the federal government banning unpaid internships.

“This is precisely what U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, intended when she announced in 2018 that all interns in her office would be paid US$15 an hour. The cause has since been taken up by other Capitol Hill offices and Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit that is seeking to increase paid internships,” the report said.

“To begin funding these government positions, Congress and the Biden administration could allocate funding in upcoming stimulus packages for college students to work as paid interns in federal, state and local government offices. Efforts should be made to find other sources of funding to pay interns over the long term.”

Creating tax breaks and grant programs could also help students and even small businesses and nonprofits, while funding paid internships at nonprofits could incentive work that often goes unpaid.