I just want to clarify that I am not against unpaid internships. I am fostering a conversation to get the opinions of my readers since this is certainly an issue they will encounter.

In order to get a decent paying job after graduation, you need previous experience. Often, students gain experience through unpaid internships.

But, what about when unpaid internships are illegal? I actually had never heard of this before reading the article. (Added Nov. 17) I personally like Heather Huhman’s stance. She believes that if a company has the means to pay, they should. But, people should be willing to work for free in order to gain experience if they have to.

Some places can’t afford to pay an intern. They can barely afford their employee’s salaries. But what about those larger companies who don’t pay their interns? From the other side, interns take a lot of time to train. They need to be mentored and their work needs to be monitored. There’s a cost to having interns.

According to the Labor and Employment Law Blog, “…no work can be performed that is of any benefit at all to the company.  That is, you can not deliver mail, sort files, file papers, organize a person’s calendar, conduct market research, write reports, watch television shows and report on them, read scripts, schedule interviews, or any other job that assists the employer in any way in running their business.” Heather Huhman also has a post about legalities and what is considered “illegal.”

During the past several years, I’ve done a lot of free work in order to gain experience or get my foot in the door. With that said, I’ve been paid when I’ve spent a significant amount of time doing work. Since I am paying for college on my own, I need to have some sort of paying job in order to continue my education.

My opinion: Interns should be paid unless the organization, like a nonprofit, can’t afford to pay. The work interns do should always provide some kind of education, especially if they are unpaid. Often, I’d rather be learning and growing than making a lot of money.

Your opinion? I would love to know what PRSA, leaders in PRSSA and others in the field think about obligations related to having both paid and unpaid internships. What do career bloggers think?


  1. I was not aware of this law that states that “no work can be performed that is of any benefit at all to the company,” and am surprised to see that such a thing exists. I have seen no organization or company adhere to this law and am a little bit skeptical about it.

    However, I do agree that interns should be paid if the company has the resources to do so. I am finding it difficult in this economic crisis to secure an entry-level job, when companies aren’t hiring entry-level positions because, “that’s what interns are for,” and they don’t have to pay them.

    It is a very stressful time, and I too would like to see the responses from leaders in the public relations field.

  2. I’m torn on this topic. While I do agree that sometimes employers can go to far, I think that the value of an unpaid internship is still there.

    For example, my program required me and my classmates to do a six-week internship last summer. Several of my classmates ended up working full-time, all summer long (5 months) for free.

    I originally sent my resume to the PR/Marketing agency that I’m currently working at asking for a 5-week internship with them. They asked me whether I expected it to be paid or unpaid and I said unpaid because I knew they wouldn’t offer me the position if it was paid. They barely knew me. I must have impressed them during my 5-weeks because it turned into a part-time paid job which will become my full-time paid job when I graduate this spring.

    So, I guess my point is that unpaid internships can be really valuable, I have experience that lots of people DON’T have and the same goes for my classmates who spent the whole summer working unpaid. If we hadn’t agreed to work unpaid then we wouldn’t have gotten the experience at all because right now most companies simply CANNOT afford to pay interns. To me, the experience is worth more than the money I didn’t get paid.

  3. I sincerely agree with you that interns should be paid.

    Companies not only benefit from their work, enthusiasm and fresh ideas, but I also believe interns become invested in the organization to a higher degree when they are paid.

  4. Two issues:

    The biggest issue for me is that a culture of unpaid internships cuts out a large part of the population that cannot afford to have an unpaid internship. Many simply cannot afford to work for nothing and therefore are limited to the smaller number of paid internships available.

    The other issue I see is how companies will be held accountable. If Big PR Company X hires a college students for an unpaid internship, I doubt the student will have the “britches” to call out that company and will likely be just happy to have the offer and potential experience. Interns are in a funny position because of that.

    Internships are very valuable regardless of whether they are paid or not. It’s not necessarily about value, here, but rather about what is fair.

  5. I have heard too many professionals spout the adage “You get what you pay for,” to put much stock in an unpaid internship. I know if I’m getting paid to do something, I am more likely to put more time, detail and attention into the project. I try to do good work on anything with my name on it but if I am getting paid, I want to go extra hard on an assignment. That’s just the results of growing up in a capitalistic society. Sure, interns should be grateful for an opportunity but payment would make us/them MORE grateful :)

    Great post Rachel and way to bring (link) in the big guns! Hope they comment.

  6. Rebekah – I had never heard of this before either and I don’t know many details about it other than what I’ve read online. Thanks for the comment.

    Amber – I’m torn as well because I’ve gotten a paid internship from volunteering as an unpaid intern. I see the value in them. But, I think that some places that can afford to pay are not because they know students will still be their interns.

  7. Cynthia – Thanks for the agreement. I’m glad you feel that way since I was once your intern ;) Interns should become invested whether they are paid or not. I’ve actually had opportunities that I was not paid for that I felt more personally invested in than some that were paid. It all depends on how engaged I am.

    Tom – I completely agree. You make great points on the issues. I didn’t intern after my freshman year because I had to have a full-time, paying job. I’ve also had to turn down interviews because I knew I could not take the unpaid internship. As an intern, I would never point out to a company that they were doing something illegal. I would just be happy to be an intern! Thanks for commenting!

    Evan – I agree. I think getting paid for something makes you feel more accountable. Thanks for commenting and I hope those I linked comment as well!

  8. I am completely pro-unpaid internships, unless they’re full-time. I did three internships as an undergrad, all unpaid and all for college credit. I have also managed interns at a PR agency and think they work harder and are more likely to take the internship seriously when it’s for college credit and not just a “part-time job.” They usually have to answer to a professor or internship advisor if the internship is unpaid.

    I also interned after college for three months, full-time. I was paid a salary for that, which I think makes sense, especially because I had a degree.

  9. Renee – I think that’s interesting that they have worked harder when they have to answer to a professor or adviser. At CMU, I have to pay tuition to get internship credit. So my 6 credit hour internship cost about $1,500. When I am paid, I feel more accountable for my work because I feel the company is not only making an investment in time for teaching me, but also financially. Thanks for this point of view!

  10. As much as I want to say unpaid internships are evil, I think there is a lot of value in them, depending on where you’re working. Personally, I can’t afford not to be paid for my work, and I know there are a lot of college students who are in the same boat as me. For some of these top companies that don’t pay their interns, you have to wonder if the industry is creating an opportunity gap for students.

    In any case, unpaid internships should be structured and offer a lot of value for the intern. Even if you’re working at an agency without pay, the staff should take the time to mentor you and teach you different things. I think it’s important to sit down with your supervisor regularly to discuss feedback and ways to grow.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I know we will have more to say on the PRSSA Blog soon (following Conference coverage).


  11. This is interesting and an old debate. I think that interns should be paid because we’re working. Unfortunately, many internships are not paid.

    I can speak directly to this because I had five internships in college. Two of which were paid and actually turned into employment. The bottom line is that I don’t regret my unpaid internships and I worked for money on the side, so I could gain valuable experience. The two PR agencies that I interned at both didn’t pay me, but I learned valuable lessons, made great contacts and walked away with experience under my belt.

    I wrote a blog post that internships are necessary, even if they’re unpaid. (

    I would always welcome a paid internship, but if you’re going to gain experience and the company doesn’t offer paid, I wouldn’t turn it down.

  12. Grace – Thanks for the comment. I agree with you…sometimes you can’t turn down those unpaid internships because you need the experience! Thanks for the comment!

  13. Great post! If I had my own agency, and I would do a scholarship program for my interns (kind of how you had your summer internship I think). I would promote it as a scholarship contest for a PR student, and then once the lucky/deserving intern would be chosen, I’d do regular PR stuff to try and get some publicity surrounding it. Not only would that be great for the student (how wonderful would it be for a future employer to Google the name of the student and have a news article come up about the student winning a scholarship??) but it would also make my company look amazing by supporting the education of a student. Luckily, I had parents to help support me through unpaid internships, but I still had to temp and waitress through 5 unpaid internships. Life, college and rent is expensive!! For the kids whose parents aren’t in a financial position to help, I honestly don’t know how they do it!!! It’s not very fair. :-( At the same time, I understand how companies – in the midst of layoffs and paycuts – literally can’t afford to pay interns. Tough situation for sure! Great topic, Rachel!!

  14. [...] Editorial Calendar « Are companies illegally taking advantage of unpaid interns? [...]

  15. I hire for unpaid internships all the time, and it’s NOT illegal, because there’s an exception in the law for most nonprofits. It would be good to give out correct information here.

  16. And I did not say that all of them were illegal. I’m just sharing information I learned about and soliciting a conversation among other public relations interns and professionals. Thank you.

  17. This is a very interesting debate and I’m totally on the fence about where I stand. I have had several unpaid internships, some for credit and some just because I wanted the experience. I’ll admit that I was a little more open to the unpaid internship while in school, but after graduation, it became less of an option for me, mostly because I had to support myself somehow.

    In a perfect world, we’d all be paid for the work we’ve conributed…and I’m sure companies would love to pay everyone, but it’s just not always possible. Many times, companies will offer unpaid internships to see if candidates are really passionate about what it is they want to do…accepting one, in my opinion, says a lot about character.

    In my position now, I do try to persuade the powers that be to offer some sort of compensation, especially in these tough economic times where students aren’t solely looking for a learning experience, they are also trying to couple that with earning some sort of income to support themselves.

    Still a little on the fence about it, clearly.

    Good post!

  18. As a college senior majoring in public relations, this issue is extremely relevant to me. Over the past two years I’ve completed two unpaid internships, and I plan to pursue one more internship before graduation–one that will likely be unpaid. As for the legality of interns, most companies are required to give the interns something in return for their work. However, that “something” is often class credit. As one comment noted, the interns generally have to pay tuiton to recieve that credit. I evaded paying to work full-time for two months this summer by refusing class credit for my internship. I did not receive compensation, but my internship was legal because I had the option to receive class credit for it. While lack of compensation certainly poses financial challenges, I believe that unpaid internships are entirely worthwhile. The experience I received and the portfolio pieces I gained in my internships will pay off in the future, and are worth more to me than the minimum wage I might have earned working somewhere else.

  19. [...] I asked for people’s opinions on unpaid internships after discovering that some are considered illegal. On my last blog, I wrote about whether or not [...]

  20. This posting covers many aspects of internships so thank you. You should also check out which seems to offer a lot of useful advice as well for new interns.

  21. [...] as much as possible: One internship experience is great, but 10 internship experiences are even better. I’m NOT suggesting you intern [...]

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Rachel M. Esterline works in public relations and marketing communications. Her blog, ExPRessions, contains her musings about PR, marketing, career and professional development, Gen Y issues, personal branding and more. Rachel also does freelance consulting and writing. She is originally from Genesee, Mich., and will graduate from Central Michigan University in May 2010.