Unpaid Interns: An Apology

I regret having supervised unpaid interns while working at a previous employer, and would like to apologize. I’m truly sorry. Free labor is exploitative and exclusionary. I’m writing about it now in hopes that it will spark others to change.

During the course of more than three years at a progressive non-profit organization, I worked with dozens upon dozens upon dozens of unpaid interns. I selected and directly supervised about a fifth of the interns in the office. Supervising unpaid interns means that I was complicit in a modern employment system that is elitist, racist and treats workers in a horrifyingly bad way. Rather than name and further exploit the interns I supervised, who were all somewhere on the continuum between pretty great and really great, I would simply like to acknowledge that if you’re reading this, I can see your faces in my mind, I think you’re awesome, and I’m sorry.

No one should be expected to work for free, especially in order to, as the lore about unpaid internships goes, “make contacts and get a job someday.” While publications make sport of who can most lambaste the millennial generation for being lazy and self-absorbed, they rarely report on the growing expectation that our youngest workers should give away their labor for free. If you work on a regular schedule — not as a volunteer who controls your schedule and the projects you will and won’t do — and report to people who are getting paid, you should get paid, too. Period. It’s unacceptable to force workers starting their careers in a ho-hum economy to work for free, simply because they are young. It’s also unacceptable to replace paid workers, often older, with younger interns who are not (or barely) paid.

Those people in power who insist that unpaid interns are required for an organization to survive should get real. If your organization depends upon the artificial condition of employee-like unpaid laborers to survive, your organization needs to either get a new business plan or dissolve. From both moral and operational point of views, this holds true even for non-profit organizations not legally required to comply with unpaid internship rules the Department of Labor has created for for-profit organizations. From an unpaid intern point-of-view, you’re not any more or less not paid whether or not your employer is driven by profit. On the operations side, if you’re filling a niche that is no longer relevant or resists being filled according to your formula, change your business plan or quit and work with a similar organization doing a better job serving the needs of today. If an organization can’t survive enough to pay its workers, it’s on artificial life support — one that is extremely harmful to the people working there for free.

Everything bad about race, class and gender comes out for unpaid internships. Women are 77 percent more likely to hold an unpaid internship. High-income students are more likely to be involved in paid internships. Whites are more likely to be able to afford the privilege of putting an unpaid internship on a resume. Want to learn more? A recent study by Intern Bridge should be all you need to read, vomit and resolve to push for change.

Beyond those I worked with and/or directly supervised, I have known many unpaid interns in my day. Much, but not all, of the non-profit “equality” organizational landscape depends on the free labor of youth. I know how to recognize when people aren’t eating enough not because they are dieting, but because they have no money for food. I find it reprehensible that “free food” is a joke to fetch interns in Washington, D.C., where many interns go to briefings and parties because they are hungry in the poverty sense of the term. I think, specifically, that feminist organizations can do much better, and I resolve to be a forceful advocate for paid internships wherever my career may take me.

In the meantime, I am sorry to my wonderful unpaid interns past. Even if you were satisfied with our time together, and referrals or recommendations I may have given you since, you deserved to be fairly compensated for your work. If I could go back in time, I would fight for you to be paid. You earned it. What I can do now is help to call for change. I hope that others in supervisory roles will join me.

16 thoughts on “Unpaid Interns: An Apology

  1. Do you consider interns who are working for college credits unpaid? After all the supervisor has the responsibility of overseeing their work and they are earning college credits. I think that’s fair.

    1. erintothemax

      It concerns me greatly when credits are involved with unpaid internships. In some cases, there is no associated educational benefit (class, group, coursework or otherwise) at the educational institution and the student may be paying for those credits … paying to work for free.

      1. Indeed! I didn’t participate in an internship while finishing my undergraduate degree because I couldn’t justify the cost of the credits, plus the costs of commuting into the city for 20 hours a week, all unpaid. I chose to take a traditional class instead. As an older / non-traditional student, this still was not a “privilege” I had. And most non profits in this space very rarely offer paying work at the end of an internship.

        Another issue that needs to be addressed is the horrific pay scale in the feminist work force…I’m glad to be employed, but my skills are not valued monetarily. Another privilege, I assume, that I can take the pay cut to do what I love…but the pay cut hurts me and my future and my family just the same.

    2. When students are working to get a good grade in the classroom what’s the difference if they are working to learn feminism in a NOW office. I was responsible for their grades and for teaching them the work activists do. What’s the difference between me and their classroom professor. I’m open to hearing that.

      1. erintothemax

        I think the difference between you or me and a professor is that we are (most likely) not in an accredited institution nor are we accountable to a university for upholding educational standards. I don’t object to internships as a practice. They are a wonderful thing. What I object to is an everyday reliance upon unpaid labor (not volunteers, but with quasi-employees, aka unpaid interns).

  2. Thanks for this, Erin! I appreciate your brave words. I was privileged enough that my unpaid internship with you was nothing but educational and a treat, but I agree that unpaid internships are unfeminist and unfair. Thank you for everything you are doing to change this!

  3. Elise

    I think this was a great post. I have long held issues with unpaid internships (or severely underpaid internships), but unfortunately they seem like the only way for recent grads, particularly those in the social sciences, to get any relevant work experience necessary to be hired (the lack of job opportunities for recent grads in and of itself is a whole other issue). But like you aptly point out, taking-on an unpaid internship, particularly one that requires a student or recent grad to relocate (these are the ones that also tend to look best on a CV), is an opportunity generally only available to individuals who can afford to work and live for free (read: available to students who have parents whom can afford to support them over the duration of their internship). Students without this luxury may chose to do an unpaid internship, but this comes at an extremely high cost to there economic well-being, and still, most cannot afford to undertake the most coveted internship positions (that require relocation).

    Again, great post! Thanks for raising awareness around this issue.

  4. Jaclyn

    As much as a part of me feels as though this is the apology I have always wanted from all the supervisors of all the unpaid, underpaid internships I experienced for almost two years, I don’t find this to be a “brave” post. With all due respect, it would be more admirable if you had worked within those institutions at the time to change the model, even in the smallest ways. Having worked as an intern in many of these progressive nonprofits, I understand how hard this is to do, but this apology that vows to work towards change seems hollow and moot after the fact. Perhaps, personally contacting all those unnamed interns, and apologizing individually would be more to the point, albeit overwhelming, but so are the amount of interns that shuttle in and out of these nonprofits in 3-6 month timespans. This public post seems to dehumanize them again, even while it tries to protect their privacy. I’d respect a former supervisor more if he/she contacted me and asked if there was anything they could do for me in the long road towards paid employment. I understand how unrealistic the possibility of that ever happening is for me or any other intern out there, and how this desire can seem to many as a sign of juvenile entitlement, which is lamentable.

  5. Eloquent as always, Erin, and I agree about 90%. MWC interns have (90% of the time) been the smartest, funniest, and most helpful people in the world and sure kept me current in so many ways. From the (small nonprofit) organization’s point of view, when an unpaid intern is not willing to try to adhere to a regular schedule and is extremely picky about tasks she is willing to do, it’s a huge cost in staff time to orient, train, manage, and evaluate them with minimal return – not to mention just checking on their well being (sometimes they may disappear for weeks) and trying to connect on a human level. So I would just go to your advice to either pay them (and pay them well – “stipends” are almost worse than no pay at all in my view and not OK from the POV of a decent employer) or not have them at all. But I think there was a time when interns were much like (other) volunteers, still vital to our movement – they wanted to be part of the action, learn things, have a seat at the table, and make a difference (sometimes just by stuffing envelopes or photocopying things, tasks not considered demeaning by top paid staff, once upon a time). Recent economic trends and academic bureaucracy have contributed to internships as job substitutes, with detailed documentation of impressive projects undertaken for credit. I guess my advice would be for both the prospective intern and the prospective internship manager to be crystal clear about expectations. P.S. I’m still torn about volunteerism too – similarly for people who don’t need to worry EVERY day about putting food on their kids’ tables, and similarly undervalued in so many ways, economic and otherwise. But how are we gonna have our next Million Woman March with all paid staff?

  6. i agree and disagree with this person. I think unpaid interns are okay for something like non profits because if its something like a charity you’re focused on giving as much of the funds you raise to that charity and want interns and volunteers so you won’t have to shell out a bunch of that to hourly wages. that being said there are an obscene amount of shady non profits where execs are getting huge salaries and bonuses and paying people nothing or next to nothing and lining their pockets. Also what this article should focus on is things like Hollywood where they have “interns” that work 60 hours a week doing anything but work on films and getting no real work experience. Those movies have huge budgets and they can afford to pay these people. thats what this article should have covered

  7. Getting college credit is to protect the organization using the intern. My daughter never needed any “credit” for internships she did but somehow these places had to indicate that this was the case. I feel VERY STRONGLY that organizations – particularly so-called feminists one should not exploit students. Why do we always have to follow a male model. Women have historically been underpaid or not paid at all.

  8. amy

    I’ve only had one unpaid internship, but it was at a place I really wanted to work at, so one free day a week was fine. But i’ve had 3 internships and i’m still unemployed, so what’s the point really

  9. Thanks for your honesty and the call for change. I think it is especially important that girls and women stop working for less than what they are contributing and the idea of paying interns is a great step in changing the way people think about compensation.

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