The Case for Unpaid Internships

I recently conducted a poll asking if internships should be paid or unpaid. The response was surprising, mostly, quite frankly because I didn’t think people “paid” that much attention to my posts, but that’s another story. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of paying interns. 85% of voters said internships should be paid (literally not ONE person out of 98 voters said internships should NOT be paid ), yet almost 43% of all internship programs ARE unpaid. Fascinating.

This started my brain churning. We are definitely dealing with a “what should happen” versus a “what is happening” scenario. Now, of course, I believe in a utopian world where money actually grew on trees, every internship would be paid. I actually agree with the pollsters. However, having started, grown and successfully run three different internship programs over a span of 13 years, more unpaid than paid,(in sports/tv, radio, and the performing arts) in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors and preparing more than 500 students to enter the workforce, I wonder…. if all internships were paid, would it be a disservice?

In many industries, people have had to “pay their dues” by working their way from the bottom up, or volunteering their time and efforts until their big break and landing a paid role in the industry they are passionate about.

I often hear people say that unpaid internships are not equitable and favors those who have the “luxury” of not having to be paid. I beg to differ. I personally think what makes it equitable is making sure as many people as possible know the opportunity even exists.

I am a FIRM believer that if you want something bad enough you will find a way to make it happen. Period. No excuses. Life is tough. Life is unfair. Life is indeed and in fact inequitable. However, if you can figure out how to survive, come up with creative and innovative solutions to thrive and succeed, it will build immense character and life experiences that no one can ever take away from you.

I do truly believe having a paid vs unpaid internship depends upon the situation. Obviously, if you are a multi-million dollar tech company, I think you can afford to pay your interns. However, for the fun of it, hear me out. I am playing devil’s advocate here.

If an internship has a 40 per week requirement and is unpaid, the first thing I would do is look at labor laws. I feel that is a bit extreme, however…..again…it is the choice of the individual and if they want it bad enough they can make it happen. People work and go to school 40 hours per week. They take night and weekend jobs if they have to. Do I think it is right or fair? Absolutely not, but do I think it can keep someone who really wants it from making it happen, I also think…absolutely not.

If an internship only requires 2–3 days per week, I have seen interns who have had part-time jobs, were in school, and had an internship. Some had family support, some didn’t. But what they all had was the desire to make a better life for themselves and quite frankly, those were often our best interns. In all three programs and industries that I led an internship program, the ones who were willing to sacrifice the most to be there were the most engaged, most reliable, and quite frankly, were our standout interns. Now was it easy? OF COURSE NOT. But whoever said life was going to be easy? Hasn’t it been said everything worth having is worth working for?

I have found the best internship situation is the one that works in tandem with local colleges and/or universities. It is a win/win because the university is literally giving them permission to not attend class on campus, but to put into practice what they are learning in the classroom in an actual real-world environment. They are motivated to learn and do a good job because their grade and often graduation are dependent upon it. This also helps businesses, organizations and entrepreneurs remain accountable because they can’t just give intern assignments like filing all day and going on coffee runs.

What about the case for UBUNTU, especially in the case of a non-profits, small businesses or an entrepreneur experiencing growing pains that don’t have access to the funding that some others have? Should they not offer an internship because they can’t pay? What about that feeling of community working together to help each other rise and succeed? It is the opportunity for the company to pour knowledge into the future of their community who would like to learn the ins and outs of the industry and for the student (of any age) to gain valuable exposure that they may have never had the opportunity to embark upon otherwise.

What about, dare I say, fostering the spirit of volunteering? Learning to help out someone else in need of their skills knowledge in exchange for experience? There can be indeed an exchange of knowledge for experience, a sense of mutual help with success in mind, and minimizing the “Catch 22” that we all know of: “I can’t get hired because I don’t have the experience, but how am I supposed to get experience if no one will hire me?” This allows them to not only boost that resume with the magic words that open doors: hands-on-experience, but to truly understand the value of and just what a precious commodity time actually is.

I’d also like to throw out there that just because an internship is paid, doesn’t mean it is inherently better. Sometimes it means the business/organization doesn’t have to work as hard to create a meaningful experience because they can just pay you for your time…meaning some may have the mentality of “all you may do is file for the entire summer because after all, I am paying you”, or on the flip side the intern isn’t really willing to learn the job, because they are there for the check, just to punch in and punch out.

Often, unpaid internships, because there isn’t an exchange of money, make a much more valiant effort to provide an invaluable experience for the intern to boost their resume and expand their professional network. These programs tend to be much more hands-on and more aware of the labor laws and extremely cautious to not break any. Executives tend to be more welcoming to having interns in important meetings, managers are more willing to meet with interns and the organization as a whole is more willing to fold them into the fabric of the organization/business.

The fact of the matter is that organizations/businesses who have paid or unpaid internships still face the same challenges: Interns can feel entitled (even more so I dare say if they are paid) they may not produce a high quality of work, they can be lazy and unreliable (all very common misconceptions that I discuss in my e-book Debunking Myths about Volunteers and Interns). It isn’t always about the money. Regardless if it is paid or unpaid, the internal character and work ethic of the person is what matters the most. The same person can have a paid or unpaid internship and so long as they feel as though their work is appreciated, valued, perhaps even implemented and they are getting something out of it, they will be willing to put in the work.

I understand that lack of pay means that not everyone will have the same access or chance, but honestly where in life is that true? From birth, we are not all born with the same access or chances, but it is learning to make things happen with the choices and possibilities that we do have that make the difference.

Lastly, just for fun, let me throw this out there too. Perhaps, we are getting caught up with terminology. Wouldn’t it make more sense to call it an “apprenticeship” (a person who is learning a trade having agreed to work for a fixed period at low wages) instead? This way “internships” (the position of a student or trainee who works in an organization, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification) that don’t pay wouldn’t get looked down upon?

With all of this said, I am pro-pay in regard to internships. Who couldn’t use the money? However, all I am saying is that just make sure to acknowledge the possibilities, benefits, and the silver lining in the unpaid internship too.

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Nicole (@nicolersmithnet) is a Panamanian-American, workforce development specialist, dancer, motivational speaker and published author of Game On! Relentlessly Pursue Your Dreams and the 101 Affirmations Journal Series. She attended Oral Roberts University on a Division I full-ride track scholarship. After graduating, she founded Step It Up! Inc., a non-profit dance organization. Her experience in sports and entertainment, radio, TV and the performing arts has spanned nearly 20 years covering the Chicago, Houston and Miami markets. She has danced and cheered for four Professional and Semi-Professional sports teams, has prepared more than 500 interns to enter the workforce and has inspired crowds upwards of 2000. She received the Emerging Leaders ALIVE Impact Award, was listed as one of WLRN’s “Local Women Who Inspire You” , and was selected as one of Legacy Miami’s MOST PROMINENT AND INFLUENTIAL BLACK WOMEN IN BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY OF 2019. She sits on the Board of the Association of Leaders In Volunteer Management, The Arts and Business Council of Miami and Ageless Chic Magazine.




Nicole is a Panamanian-American, single mom, workforce development specialist, published author, dancer, and motivational speaker. Her experience spans 20 yrs.

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Nicole R. Smith

Nicole R. Smith

Nicole is a Panamanian-American, single mom, workforce development specialist, published author, dancer, and motivational speaker. Her experience spans 20 yrs.

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