The World of Unpaid Internships

Friday, August 02, 2013


For years, unpaid internships have been a media industry standard. But over the past couple of months, there have been a rash of lawsuits against media companies for not paying interns. Brooke investigates the state of the unpaid internship.

Mark Mothersbaugh - Let me tell you about my boat


Blair Hickman, Kevin Hicks, Michael Moroney and Maurice Pianko

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [12]

YC from Boston

My experience at a non-profit this summer was disheartening. The position was described to me as a completely different experience from the one I actually had. The first day, I walked into a one room "office" in a run down part of town, where there was one boss and six other interns. I soon realized that the entire organization was run by this one man and a rotating crew of interns. We were not compensated for travel and gas that was done for the organization, and my boss was never very thankful that we were putting in time as, essentially, glorified volunteers.

Aug. 29 2013 01:30 PM
Alicia from Grand Rapids, Mi

Once I was promised that I would be payed after I was done "training". 4 and a half months later I was still in the "training" process. Even though I was creating billboards to completion like the full time PAID designers were.

While I learned a lot. I was literally doing the exact same job, without pay. Very shameful.

Aug. 12 2013 03:09 PM

When I was in law school, I clerked in a law firm, got paid for my time, and used the money I earned to (partly) pay my bills. I knew many students who worked at unpaid internships with private law firms, and I never understood the concept. Why would I work for free? I saw a job listing this morning for a "fashion intern." The job duties included greeting customers, helping customers, putting away orders, keeping track of stock. Like -- a retail job. This whole unpaid internship needs to end. They're not doing young people a favor -- they're just exploiting them.

Aug. 12 2013 12:54 PM
teacherlearner from Milwaukee

Student teaching is an often overlooked, unpaid internship. I started my career as a student teacher, and now cooperate with student teachers in my classroom. For most, it is one of the most stressful times of their career because not only do they need to perform the substantial job as a teacher working about 10 hours a day without pay, most also go in debt to pay the college or university who places them there, and have to survive for the necessities of life without income. Somehow this doesn't seem right.

Aug. 12 2013 10:25 AM
JS from NYC

I wonder how much the unemployment rate would go down if unpaid internships were illegal. Never mind the taxes the government is losing by allowing companies to exploit young workers. If your business model depends on free labor you need a new business model.

Aug. 08 2013 11:52 PM
Emily, Brooklyn from

Bad as the situation might seem, it's been worse. Around 1800, apprenticeships had to be paid for, and were highly expensive; to have one's child able to be an apprentice meant wealth, but even more than today.

Aug. 06 2013 05:12 PM
Mary from Bronx

I've never been an unpaid intern, but I have, in the past, been tasked with supervising interns, in a research lab. Cognizant that the intern was basically a volunteer, hoping to gain knowledge, I always took great pains to make the experience a fruitful one, by providing relevant resources, involving the intern in the workflow experience, and offering skills training. I would hope that other intern supervisors also try to make the experience as beneficial as possible.

Aug. 04 2013 11:08 AM
Marie from Virginia

I was recently in an unpaid apprenticeship where I was asked to sign a contract guaranteeing 24/7 availability among other things. It was a clinical apprenticeship and for three months I sat at a desk and booked appointments and made copies. When I finally sent my preceptor an email explaining my frustration at not having even been allowed to observe any clinical skills my preceptor told me I should have been grateful for the experience and told me to take three weeks off to consider how important the apprenticeship was to me.

It was humiliating to have to tell all of my family and friends that I was no longer in the apprenticeship I had wanted for so long, but leaving was better than continuing to be used.

This article helped me to be certain it wasn't me, it really was them. My apprenticeship did not follow any of the federal guidelines, not one.

Aug. 04 2013 10:11 AM

Michael Moroney put my teeth on edge. Lawsuits are exactly what is needed to put this issue on the table. And it is being discussed because of the lawsuits. Mr. Moroney sounds like a man comfortable in his secure position and firmly insulated from economic reality. He mentions "several organizations" to help people unable to afford an unpaid internship. "Several" is not going to cut it for the thousands of potential interns out there. If some internships are lost because organizations are actually forced to paid something well so be it. That assertion however is a weak supposition and one that closely resembles the general argument presented against the minimum wage. Both smack of fiction.

Aug. 04 2013 08:44 AM
peter nelson from Boston

One aspect of this story which has received more attention in the UK, where unpaid internships are an even bigger and more controversial issue, is this: to even BE an unpaid intern is a kind of luxury, in the sense that you either have to have money of your own to live on or a family that can afford to support you.

So even if we accept the premise that some interns, say at WNYC, do learn useful things at their internship, the fact remains that working for free is an option that's only open people of means, thus further reinforcing our growing economic and class divides in the US.

Aug. 03 2013 10:31 PM
John Bonnen

I feel that these kinds of "opportunities" very much reinforce a class structure in society, where the children of the rich can afford to support their kids while they pursue these unpaid internships. Your piece quite correctly points out that many, and in opinion, less well to do students have to have secondary jobs to support these internships. I noted that you did not ask your interns how they supported themselves in one of the most expensive cities in the world while working for you. My guess is that if they don't have a second job, they live with their parents in the greater New York area.

The government is one of the worst offenders, offering substantial numbers of unpaid internships in the nation's capital. As a parent, I cannot afford to support my children in such an expensive city. The advantages to those who can, say, work and network within institutions of great power are huge.

As a final note I leave you with perhaps the ultimate expression of the unpaid internship; Italy. It suffers from excessively antiquated work laws that allow "apprenticeships" that can last for decades. In many ways, it has significantly contributed to the economic stagnation and complete lack of social mobility that now plagues that country. Many adult children simply not move out of their parents houses.

Aug. 03 2013 08:14 AM

Cringeworthy as the low end of "the media's" pay scale may be, the worse problem may be at the high end. Just when that Columbia J-School grad gets experienced enough to be actually useful and interesting to an adult, he realizes that the job is too low-paying to remain in the profession without a reliable source of income *outside* the job.

Therefore, minus today's unpaid interns and recent poverty-wage grads, I suspect that NYC's media production would be dramatically reduced, much like the South's cotton production was screwed after Lincoln. Turning media into profit centers for shareholders and dinosaur managers, has deeply wounded this country and its communities.

Aug. 02 2013 08:59 PM

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