Are you sure you want to take that unpaid internship? If the slew of recent unpaid internship lawsuits hitting big names like Fox Searchlight, Donna Karan, Condé Nast, and P. Diddy are any indication, maybe it’s time to rethink what you’re willing to do to advance your career.
It’s a common sentiment that college students need to “pay their dues” or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they want to enjoy a fruitful and fulfilling career, but students are often being used and abused when it comes to unpaid internships. While internships offer a great way to build a portfolio and gain experience, hard work should not go without reward—or at the very least, compensation for basics like food and shelter. A paid internship is the way to go.
According to a recent InternMatch survey, 36.9 percent of companies still offer unpaid internships or paid internships that pay less than minimum wage. In the United States, there are up to one million unpaid internships offered each year.
That’s a whole lot of unpaid labor.
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It’s time to take a stand against unpaid internships and stop accepting less-than-adequate compensation for your work. Here are four reasons you deserve a paid internship:
1. It might be illegal.
The US Department of Labor has established six guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act to help for-profit employers determine whether or not an internship program necessitates paying the federal minimum wage and overtime. In order to be unpaid, an internship must be an educational experience as close as possible to the one the intern would receive in college, and their work should not displace that of a regular employee. The employer should also gain no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities, and the program should benefit the intern first and foremost.
Be sure to carefully read the job description, contact former interns, or direct questions to the company’s HR department if you’re unsure about whether or not the program meets these guidelines. If it doesn’t, you deserve compensation and shouldn’t settle for anything less than a paid internship.
2. It might put you in a sticky situation.
While no one wants to expect the worst during their career, it’s worth noting that as an intern, you’ll have limited options if you’re treated unfairly in the workplace. Unpaid interns are not actually employees of the company, meaning you’ll have no legal recourse in the event of sexual harassment or discrimination.
As mentioned above, plenty of former interns are filing class-action lawsuits against companies that had them fetching coffee or doing other nonessential tasks for no pay. If you’re entering into a potentially harmful work situation, it’s in your best interest to know you’ll have legal recourse should you need it.
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3. It might drive up your debt.
We all know college graduates are drowning in debt, but an unpaid internship might make the situation worse. Sixty-five percent of students already rely on financial assistance from their parents during an internship. For-credit internship opportunities offer little advantage, as they require students to cover the cost of credit and the cost of living while on the job. The situation is bleak even among paid internships—41 percent of interns said the compensation offered was insufficient to cover their daily living expenses.
The trend impacts people of color particularly hard, considering African American students are likely to be in more debt than their white counterparts. The unpaid internship only solidifies economic trends that leave people of color and debt-ridden students worse off when it comes to career advancement.
4. It might not lead to a job.
If a company can’t pay an intern, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to transform that intern into an employee. It would seem that unpaid internships turn into a job just 37 percent of the time—a measly one percent advantage over no internship experience at all (36 percent). Compare that to 60 percent of paid interns receive full-time job offers. If an internship program is unpaid, take that as an indication that the employer is unlikely to hire you full-time after the program ends anyway.
Unpaid internships are the labor struggle of the Millennial generation, and it’s not worth going down without a fight. Interns deserve to be paid, and if a company disagrees, you should consider sending that résumé elsewhere.
[Internships are for all ages! Explore our Adventures of a 50-Year-Old Intern series.]
Ashley Mosley is a Community Engagement Manager of InternMatch, an online platform connecting the best intern candidates and employers. Connect with Ashley and InternMatch on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.