The end of (unpaid) internships — about time?

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, this has been a year of lawsuits against major corporations with very deep pockets who have hired interns and either not paid them enough — or not paid them anything at all.

Experience, skills and a new network are deemed sufficient compensation.

internship (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

The problem? No lower-income would-be employee can afford to rent space, feed and clothe themselves, let alone afford gas or subway fare, if they are not paid. A serious internship requires all the time and energy it takes to make that income “on the side” — which has meant that many internships are eagerly claimed by those whose parents or partner can afford to subsidize them.

If a company can keep its lights on and elevators running, it can afford to pay its interns!

Now, in response to all the hue and cry, Conde Nast — the publishing empire producing Vanity Fair, Glamour, Vogue, et al — has decided to end its internship program.

Here’s a piece about it from, a major hub for Jnews:

there’s so much more to doing internships than just the desk work. As they’re pursued in such a transitional time of life, I believe they help to shape who you are not just professionally but also personally, and if
they’re done right, they can push you toward a decision about what you want to do with your life. For the rest of your life. What if other huge names like Condé Nast gave up on their internship programs? The New Yorker, in many circles, is considered the pinnacle of journalistic success.

And for fashion writers and enthusiasts, Vogue reaches those heights. Now, freshly graduated people are potentially left to knock on Condé Nast’s door with zero relationships in the building, having had no opportunity to show them that they can hack it at a major media title —the  shot you get during an internship.

English: I took this photograph of the footsto...
English: I took this photograph of the footstone of Conde Nast in Gate of Heaven Cemetery on April 9, 2007. Conde Nast was a real person — how would he feel about all this? GNU Free Documentation License – (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And from The Globe and Mail:

I remember when my first internship ended, the staff gathered around to tell me what a wonderful a job I had done and wish me well. But instead of eating cake, I really wanted to blurt out “just put me on the payroll!”

On the other hand, that internship helped me land my first paying job. The hiring manager even overlooked his requirement that I possess a master’s degree in journalism from an expensive Ivy League college after seeing clippings of my articles published during that internship.

But somewhere along the line, internships – meant to bridge the skills gap between formal education and an entry-level job – evolved into an accepted way for companies to demand free labour.

In recent years, a chorus of discontent has arisen over unpaid internships, most notably in several high-profile lawsuits, including ones against Fox Searchlight Pictures and Hearst Magazines. Condé Nast shut down its internship program last week after an earlier lawsuit.

I have strong opinions about this as I’ve been hiring — and paying — interns and assistants for more than a decade, paying them a low wage of $10 hour to a maximum of $15/hour. I had an unpaid intern, Jessica, who received college credit for the semester we worked together — by the time it ended, I’d grown so reliant on her helpful good cheer I paid her $12/hour, and then (with one phone call) found her her first post-grad job, in the field she wanted.

On my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, I truly was broke, yet managed to find four bright, capable young women to help me with research — without pay. They were excited to contribute to a work of women’s history and I was deeply grateful for their skill and energy. One of them, 11 years later, remains a friend and colleague; she went on to work for one of NPR’s biggest national radio programs.

Cover of "Blown Away: American Women and ...
Cover of Blown Away: American Women and Guns

Since then, I’ve worked with about a dozen others, some fantastic, some less so. But I’ve paid all of them, even those without a shred of journalism experience or training. It’s a win-win for us both — they learn a lot, quickly, by doing substantive work and I am freed from endless administrative tasks to get on with higher-value work I need to do.

These are not full-time jobs. I can’t pay anyone thousands of dollars a month; i.e. a living wage. But I spend hundreds, sometimes close to a thousand dollars, each year to hire and pay people for their skills.

If someone is offering you a skill — and you, and your company, are profiting from their labor, pay them.

It seems pretty simple to me.

Have you done a paid (or unpaid) internship?

Was it as valuable as you’d hoped?

17 thoughts on “The end of (unpaid) internships — about time?

  1. In the interest of brevity: As a single mother in college (with 3 children) and in my 30s, I did not want to work 80 hours a week and pay someone else to raise my children. Hence, during my internship/practicum for undergrad and graduate social work I had to FINANCE my living expenses. With my major requiring 40 hours of work for free, I took out huge loans in order to be both an involved, present mother and meet the expectations to secure my undergrad and graduate degree. Ridiculous I was put in this position.

  2. In high school I interned twice for the local library, but that was for school credit, so I didn’t need to get paid. However now I work for the financial aid office, and that’s an internship in everything but name. And I’m glad they pay me, because if they didn’t I don’t know how I’d pay rent!

  3. In my last two years of college I interned for a media buying company, no pay, but I feel like if I hadn’t done that, I never would have had the experience or references, right out of school to get two job offers right when I graduated. And during a recession in the early 90s….I felt this internship made all the difference. Loved the experience but I certainly couldn’t have done it if I wasn’t in a dorm, with most of my expenses paid for already. I could never do it again…

  4. No, I never did an internship of any kind. Just the usual business of making less pay at first, more later when I learned what I was doing. I figured, at first you’re just getting paid for your time, later, for what you know and what you can produce. But, a person should always get paid for their time.
    I mean, what evil, greedy bastard came up with the idea of unpaid internships? I’ll bet he got a promotion, whoever he was.

    1. There is some bizarre fantasy that — I guess — people with fewer options deserve to be treated like shit because…others can get get away with it. Economic brutality shocks me. Yes, some people are lazy. Fire them. But anyone who does their job to their best of their ability, and IF you are literally profiting from their labor — how is it fair or morally justifiable to deny them their share?

      1. There is the general feeling that “all’s fair . . . ” and when corporations are accused of most anything, the response is, (true or not,) we broke no laws. I don’t think “arbiter of fairness and moral justification” is in anyone’s job description, sad to say.

        I think maybe our culture’s general sensibilities are all that can or will modify this, and there’s at least some hope as long as people keep talking about it. (Like you.)

      2. The law is no yardstick for decent behavior. Yes, I’m idealistic. I’m OK with that. I wish more people would fight back, loudly and persistently, against such corporate and personal greed. It’s disgusting.

  5. 3 unpaid internships in communications/ad field, one turned into my advertising career, so i guess worth it, but i had to pay to take them as a class. had to have a second job to support this. also student teaching is an unpaid internship of sorts, had to pay for that as well and turned into my teaching career.

    1. Doctors in training are PAID for the four years of their labor — even while they learn after medical school. Lawyers (at least in Canada) “article” for a year (a post-grad internship) and are paid.

      This abuse of others’ labor? Crazy. Just because everyone keeps falling into line (with no better options) is it excusable.

      Is it?

      How many people did NOT get a paid job after “donating” their time and skills? What if none of these had paid off for you?

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