What’s an Unpaid Internship Worth?

Over at Motherlode, the Times’s parenting blog, a father lays out his concerns for why he thinks his college-age daughter should consider doing an internship this summer rather than work as a camp counselor. He thinks an internship would give her a competitive edge in a tight job market where there will be padded resumes galore. Her argument: Fetching coffee and running errands for someone is less valuable than the actual work she’ll be doing as a counselor:

“What I do there matters,” she insisted. In several conversations, she told us about helping a camper cope with her mother’s debilitating depression and comforting others whose parents were fighting or separating, about aiding 11- and 12-year-olds who were coming to terms with their sexuality, battling anorexia, confronting body fear. She talked about the many hours devoted to water-skiing lessons, about instilling the confidence needed by awkward, gawky, painfully self-conscious 8- and 9-year-olds to stay prone in the water, hold on to the rope, then rise up and stay on their feet as the boat pulled away. “What’s more important than that?” she asked.

It’s a good point, and the father points to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers which concluded that an “unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student.” Students that are lucky enough to find paid internships fare much better in the job market.

It all depends on what you’re doing, of course. In my experience in the startup world, interns were not running around fetching coffee — they were building and coding applications that would be used by actual people. The two college-age interns I worked with at my old job taught themselves how to work in databases, and were building their own applications on the side. I was really impressed by them. They were paid $15 an hour. We also had a high school senior with little experience, but who was eager to jump in and learn whatever we threw at him. He came in twice a week, and was paid a stipend of $500 for the summer. (Though, I think the interns secretly spent a lot of time using turntable.)

Back when I was an unpaid internship for various media outlets, and basically working as an unpaid writer or copyeditor (and nobody was talking about whether or not that was illegal) I got to work with a few editors who actually wanted me to work my way up and find success. At the very least, they helped get me into grad school, and at the very most, helped me find paid work. I look back on my unpaid intern days through rose-colored glasses — it wasn’t so bad. The landscape is much different now.

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