You Might Make More Money Not Taking That Unpaid Internship

Not just during the time you’d be working for free, but also when you get your first full-time job.

The Intern

The Wall Street Journal just shared new data on interns and compensation:

Paid Interns Get More Job Offers, Higher Salaries Than Unpaid Peers

Paid interns at private, for-profit companies had a 72% chance of getting a job offer, compared with just 44% of unpaid interns, according to a survey of students from the graduating class of 2015 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.


The NACE survey also found that paid interns at private, for-profit companies received a median starting salary offer of $53,521, over $19,000 more than their unpaid peers at similar companies.

Now, to be fair, this is a bit of a no-brainer: if a company can afford to pay its interns, it can also probably afford to hire more of them and pay them higher salaries.

But here’s where it gets interesting:

The lowest median salary offers were made to unpaid interns at nonprofit organizations, coming in at $31,443. Such interns may be better off taking no post at all. According to the survey, students who took no internships received a median salary offer of $38,572.

I read the NACE survey to make sure I was understanding this correctly. The data indicates that students who do not take an internship (paid or unpaid) receive higher salaries than unpaid interns in both non-profit and for-profit organizations, as well as unpaid interns in state and local government. Unpaid interns in the federal government earn higher salaries than people who took no internship at all, as do paid interns in all surveyed categories.

It would seem like you might be able to distill this to simple advice: If you’re considering an internship, make sure it’s a paid one (or an unpaid internship in the federal government). If you can’t find a paid internship, skip the internship and go directly to full-time job applications, because you’re likely to get a higher starting salary.

But life doesn’t really work that way. The NACE study also reveals that people who don’t take internships have a lower hiring percentage rate than people who take internships, paid or unpaid. That is: if a group of people without internships applies for jobs, and a group of people with internships applies for jobs, a larger number of the people with internships will get hired. (With the exception of unpaid interns in state or local government.)

Sooooooo… hey, here’s a NYT article about how to survive your unpaid internship!

Part-Time Jobs and Thrift: How Unpaid Interns in D.C. Get By

When Dominic Peacock found out he had been selected for an unpaid summer internship at the National Congress of American Indians here, he looked up the airfare from Albuquerque, rejected the option, and boarded a bus and rode 44 hours.

Now, after a long day thumbing through bills and working for legislation to protect tribal artifacts, he walks a few blocks to a hotel restaurant where he buses tables until 1 a.m. His workweek — 60 to 75 hours long — affords him one day off to catch up on chores in his American University dorm room and explore the city.

Let’s hope more organizations follow the Ford Foundation’s example and commit to paying their interns and recruiting people from a variety of financial backgrounds.

Everyone Hates Internships — & At Last Someone’s Doing Something About It

Until then, you might want to do the math on taking that unpaid internship.

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