The debate over the legality of unpaid internships is heating up. On one hand, you have companies claiming they don’t have the budget to pay for an intern and that the students are “compensated” from the chance to gain real-world work experience. On the other hand, those opposed claim the companies are actually exploiting the interns as a source of free labor. Legal and philosophical debates aside, as someone who has worked as an unpaid intern twice in my life, I think it’s time that companies step up and find funding to pay student interns.
We’re not talking a ton of money, just enough to offset the costs of getting to and from the internship and to give the student enough money to buy lunch. When I was an undergrad, I worked as an unpaid intern for a large national financial services firm. I was grateful for the experience, but the internship put a dent in my finances. I had to buy suits to wear at the office (full disclosure–my mom helped finance the suits as I was a poor college student) and pay bus fare a few days a week. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think paying an intern at least minimum wage would be a huge hit to the bottom lines of most companies. It would have made a huge difference for me and many other students. Luckily, I didn’t have to absorb the cost of renting another place to stay or relocating to another city for the summer.
Don’t get me wrong, students shouldn’t expect to get rich from the money they’ll make during their internship. In fact, if at the end of their career they look back at their lifetime earnings and the difference between them living in the penthouse or the poorhouse was a few thousand dollars, something else must have definitely went wrong. But it’s also time for companies to move past the outdated view of bringing on college students as unpaid interns. Regardless of the final outcome of the legal debate, companies must step up to the plate and find ways to provide funding for their student interns.
Shawn Graham is the author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (www.courtingyourcareer.com). Find Shawn on Twitter @ShawnGraham or via email at shawn(at)courtingyourcareer.com.