The “unpaid” attached to so many internships these days (so, so many) is smart because of the way it’s phrased: you aren’t a volunteer because you are — allegedly — getting payment in the form of education. This isn’t true in all cases; there’s plenty of interns out there with horror stories of months-long tenures as nameless coffee gophers. They sign up for one thing and get another, and usually it’s not anything they can use to advance their careers.
The subject of unpaid internships was broached today at ThoughtCatalog.com, which printed a template farewell letter for the disgruntled unpaid intern. I wouldn’t recommend using the template, since you will come across as unappreciative and venomous, and you will have torpedoed your chances with any employer that contacts that company, but the letter is worth reading to take in the gamut of quibbles that unpaid internships have with their employers. The short of it, as you might guess, is that more often than not, unpaid workers get screwed.
I sympathize with those stories. I’ve held several unpaid jobs and internships in hopes that they would open doors for me in the future. Some did. Others didn’t. For others the jury’s still out. Most of that work is behind me now, although I do read pro bono for PANK Magazine, which, admittedly, requires few hours and consists of me doing something — reading — that I would be doing in my free time anyway. I read submissions because I have a passion for it, I enjoy it, I want to learn from it, the work hours aren’t burdening, and because, frankly, I feel I’m getting much more in the way of education than I could ever give back. Technically not an internship, PANK has more value, in some respects, than my paying work does. For all of these reasons, working for free works for me.
There are things I hate about unpaid internships. Beyond the lack of pay, that is. First is the disadvantage it creates for individuals of a lower socioeconomic status (SES) — people who can’t afford to work without pay and consequently miss out on opportunities. It puts trust-fund babies and other upper-class offspring at a considerable advantage when trying to board the elevator at the ground level. They’re more likely to get in while the door is open while less fortunate individuals make for the stairs.
Richie Rich may be the most qualified applicant, or he may not. We can’t know for sure because a great deal of applicants are turned away at the first line of the job description. I’m no spawn of rich folk, but I’m much better off than most of the country, and probably all but a handful of the world. With that heightened SES has come advantages: being childless, having an advanced education, and being able to worry without the pressures of paying bills and supporting families while still in college.
Nobody in the world wants to work for free. Duh. The value of an unpaid internship is entirely up to the individual and how he values his time and resources in relation to the benefits — again, alleged — of the internship being offered. Yes, there are always people that view you as free labor, and just that. Yes, there will be the beguiling, creepy guy in the band T-shirt that locks his turrets on the fresh and eager female interns. It’s hard to know exactly what you will get from an internship, particularly if you don’t have former interns to reference, and this makes it all the more challenging to gauge the job’s value.
In a perfect world, you would get something back for the work you do, and most jobs feature a monetary component. But many programs and businesses, particularly those in the arts and journalism, are strapped for cash and barely afloat. As the money dries up in these sectors, it leaves a large group of passionate individuals clamoring to get in the boat and keep it afloat, and some try by sacrificing the eager optimists that choose to work for free. Let me embolden young people mulling an unpaid internship: do your research. Figure out what you are getting in return (there should be something). Take the leap if you can afford it. Put forth your best effort — make sure they miss you when you’re gone. This last rule is the most important: I’ve had unpaid co-workers who felt disrespected and under-appreciated. But the degree to which they were valued equated the contributions they made to the company. Because their efforts were half-hearted, they were treated with little regard. Sadly for these people, they never caught on that their biggest problem was themselves, and they missed out on rewarding experience and education because they were too busy fussing over exchange rates.
Unpaid internships are meant for ambitious people who work hard and have a passion for what they do. You must be one of these people. But if you are, and you have been led astray and are being used for free work, consider walking out the door. Give those bad employers what they deserve. Don’t feel bad — they’re getting what they paid for.
Just make sure you held up your end of the bargain.