Unpaid internships are often sold to college students as opportunities to gain hands-on career development skills. They are said to offer real world exposure to their chosen industry and networking connections with influential business leaders. All of this to give you a competitive edge in the job market when it’s officially time to launch. Some universities or degree programs even require students to secure at least one internship as part of the necessary credit hours to graduate.
It’s common practice for many ambitious 20-year-olds to have an unpaid internship in college, but does this mean they’re worth it in the long-term? Do they shape marketable candidates with enviable resumés and professional references? Or are they part of a corporate strategy to recruit free labor, all in the name of experience? That is a question I never thought to ask in my own collegiate years—but it’s worth diving into.
How Are Unpaid Internships Legal?
I mean, is “unpaid” even legal these days? It sure is. In fact, unpaid internships are still entrenched in both the academic and professional landscapes of our society. That is even so with Gen Z being one of the most vocal generations to push for a livable income.
So to answer this legality issue in question: according to the U.S. Department of Labor, unpaid internships that meet the following criteria are acceptable under the Fair Labor Standards Act. How does that loophole work? Because interns are not classified as employees and, therefore, not necessarily entitled to a minimum wage. (Head scratcher, I know.) Here is what determines whether an internship can legally be unpaid:
- The employer and intern both clearly understand there is no expected compensation.
- The internship offers training that’s similar and applicable to what the intern would receive in an educational environment.
- The internship connects to the intern’s formal education with integrated coursework and academic credit hours after completion.
- The internship requirements are flexible enough to accommodate the intern’s school commitments and class schedule.
- The internship will take place for a limited amount of time, during which the intern has access to beneficial learning opportunities.
- The intern’s workload will complement, not displace, the roles of paid staff members.
- The employer and intern both clearly understand there is no guarantee of a job offer following the internship’s conclusion.
What to Know About Unpaid Internships
Research shows that 80 percent of major corporations search out new hires with an unpaid internship on their resumés. Not to mention, 43 percent of all internships at for-profit businesses—regardless of size or scale—are unpaid.
The fact is, there can be advantages to this unpaid internship route as a means to elevate your chances of employment after graduation. But it’s also impossible to overlook the economic privilege which factors into who can afford to take an unpaid internship in the first place, says Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar, associate editor of Ascend, a weekly newsletter for young professionals from Harvard Business Review.
Students in low-income or marginalized communities face more barriers to internship eligibility than their wealthier peers because they have financial obligations that require an actual paycheck—not a “gold star” for experience. Consider these statistics that Ravishankar cites in her argument to do away with unpaid internships:
- In a recent survey of college seniors, Black students comprised just 6.6 percent of the 4,000 respondents, but they represented 7.3 percent of unpaid interns.
- About 74 percent of the survey respondents were women, and 81 percent of those women had also worked as unpaid interns while in college.
- About 22 percent of the survey respondents were first-generation students, but more than one-quarter of these students never had an internship opportunity.
- The survey also found that Latinx students were more likely than other racial groups to not have any internship experience on their resumés at all.
- Finally, college students who are able to secure paid internships are more successful at career fairs and usually have more job offers when they graduate.
So despite how common and normalized it’s become on university campuses to have an unpaid internship, this leads to an inequitable pool of students who can actually use unpaid internships as a funnel into the workforce. And even then, it’s still a gamble—there’s no iron-clad assurance that your unpaid internship will materialize into a career.
Alternatives to Unpaid Internships
They exist and are often more accessible than you might think. No matter what academia or Corporate America might tell you, unpaid internships are not the only launchpads to gain valuable experience and future professional success. Here are some other ways to boost your resumé and skillset (no free labor required):
Take Some Online Courses In Your Spare Time.
Set Yourself Up as a Freelance Professional.
If you want to pursue a creative or tech field such as photography, web development, or social media marketing, the freelance model can be a smart career move. To minimize the overhead costs, companies will often outsource their content or technical needs to a freelance specialist. This is an excellent way to build a portfolio, establish a client base, and earn a stream of income, while learning how the industry operates in real time. And if a client is impressed with your work, it can result in long-term employment.
Go the “Enternship” Route at a Small Startup.
Are you filled to the brim with entrepreneurial ambitions? Then consider an en-ternship (pun intended) with a startup business that’s small but on the rise. Interning at a major corporation often means that your job will consist of morning caramel macchiato runs for your supervisor—offset by the occasional data entry spreadsheet. But a startup creates more opportunity for hands-on, grassroots work and exciting innovation in a fast-paced environment. One enternship program, called Students + Startups, even offers a $4,000 stipend, as well as housing subsidization. So you know…the opposite of unpaid.
Are Unpaid Internships Worth it In College?: The Final Word
Ultimately, this decision is yours to make—but please be aware that you don’t need to sell yourself short in the workplace. The valuable assets and expertise you bring to the table are worthy of compensation. Just because unpaid internships have been a collegiate expectation for longer than some of us have been alive doesn’t mean it has to stay like this in the future. There’s always room to challenge the status quo.