Newhouse Insider: Is an Unpaid Internship Worth It?

Dominick Pfisterer

There seems to be a toxic mentality that has been developed overtime. A mentality where “I had to do it, so therefore you must have to do it.” It is seen almost as a rite of passage in college with some fraternities having traditions of initiation, freshmen carrying equipment in college athletics, and, apparently, with young aspiring professionals having to go through unpaid internships in the hopes of landing a job.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) it is illegal for employers to pay their employees without paying them for their hours put in. Unless, of course, they slap the “internship” label on their servitude position, in which case all is fair as the employee is now getting their pockets filled with “experience.”

Last time I went to the grocery store, I tried to pay with experience and got kicked out.

An NFL reporter recently opened this can of worms on Twitter when they posted an opening for an unpaid internship. The post was responded to not with interest and applicants, but with instant backlash and comments.

The latter believed in the point that unpaid internships eliminate an entire pool of candidates from the competition. Shea Serrano, a writer for The Ringer, tweeted out, “Unpaid internships don’t show that you’re more dedicated to a job than someone else, they just show that there’s a phone number in your phone that you can dial whenever you need money.”

Unpaid internships are an extreme sacrifice in the hopes of an aspiring professional getting their foot in the door to land a job. Does that make them a necessary sacrifice or even a smart decision to pursue? Most unpaid internships do not even come with many responsibilities for the intern; they mostly just end up making the intern do things nobody else at the company wants to do (take it from a former unpaid intern).

More so, unpaid internships require many more hours than what they pay for. Having an internship on top of coursework is like having a full-time job, so to work full-time hours and receive no pay can put the intern in a very difficult financial position. It essentially makes it impossible for anyone to relocate for that internship and severely restricts who can afford to take the internship.

Unpaid internships are very common in the communications industry. Almost every town has their local summer league collegiate baseball team that is always accepting media relations interns to pass out flyers at games and collect tickets.

Many organizations who offer unpaid internships are not necessarily looking to train future employees, but are looking for help with some busy tasks. Political campaigns are another area where unpaid internships are popular and will have interns putting in equal hours to campaign managers without any of the pay.

The question is not whether unpaid internships are practical — because they are not. The question is: are they worth it? Is the merit received from an unpaid internship worth the lack of pay and the long hours? Is it a sacrifice for bettering your future career or is it purely exploitation? Keep these questions in mind as you enter the world of communications and navigate your career.