Back to blog homepage

Paid or unpaid: that is the internship question

| No Comments

Interns and internships seem to be everywhere these days.

Summer Interns-Group Photo.jpgAbout this time every summer I start to see a number of new faces on my daily commute into Boston on the train. The change is welcome - the faces are young and eager, and I know why they are here: they are part of the annual influx of summer interns, many of them back home from college and adding to the region's workforce for the next several weeks.      

Meanwhile the funny guy duo of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson is back on the big screen for their take on the topic in "The Internship" in which they try out their talents at Google. Haven't seen it yet but a major studio release about internships means the topic is definitely making it into the national zeitgeist.  

Internship Movie-Photo-1.jpg

But the internship news of most interest to those of us in college career offices is the recent court decision concerning compensation for interns. As the article "Court ruling stirs debate over intern pay" from last week's Boston Globe notes, the New York State case which found against Fox Searchlight Pictures for not paying its interns may have "no legal jurisdiction in Massachusetts. It did, however, spark a new -- and some say long overdue -- debate over an old employment practice that straddles the line of educational work experience and indentured servitude."

Much ink and many pixels have been spilled about this since the ruling came out in the last two weeks. On the one hand, not paying student interns for their work contribution can be an unfair labor practice and one which employers can benefit mightily from, if abused. It can be seen as exploitive and in the best interests of the organization, not the student, for whom it is intended to be an educational experience. Unpaid internships can also self-select those who can afford to put in the hours without compensation, making it discriminatory against those of lesser means who need the income.

On the other hand, many students who have undertaken unapid internships will cite the value of the experience gained which might not otherwise have been available to them. The experience can then be added to the student's resume (and possibly portfolio) and therefore can be a big career boost. A recent NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) study found that nearly half of all college interns work unpaid, so they clearly see value in these opportunities.

Many of the key points and relevant citations on both sides of the debate can be found in the summary article "Are unpaid internships worth it?" from the website Opportunity Nation.

Of course if an employer pays an intern he or she will be far more pleased. It makes them feel respected and valued and part of the organization. Here at Simmons, where internships are a big part of the curriculum and over 80% of students fulfill their Independent Learning Requirement by undertaking one or more workplace-based educational experiences, we do not turn away unpaid internships from our listings or counsel students against taking an unpaid position. However, we strongly encourage our employer partners to provide compensation to interns, whenever possible. Both parties benefit from the arrangement for the reasons cited above, both for the short- and longer-term (ie, for potential intern-to-full-time-hire conversions).     

Stay tuned for newly published internship guidelines for employers, forthcoming on the CEC website. In the interim, go see Vince and Owen at the movies and let us know in the "Comments" section below your thoughts on this summer's hot employment topic.


Photos: Courtesy Mississippi State Personnel Board,