Unpaid Internships Rarely Lead to Jobs for Students

As I have discussed before, unpaid internships outside of an educational context are very often illegal in that the internship violates state and federal minimum wage and possibly overtime laws. States and the federal government have been cracking down on unpaid internships. Courts have helped by ruling for the plaintiffs in a number of minimum wage and overtime suits brought on behalf or people who worked an unpaid internship. Paid internships seem to have become more common than before.

Unpaid internships for students are still widely prevalent. When a student takes an unpaid internship for college credit it is more likely that the internship will meet the requirements for a legal unpaid internship. This means unpaid internships are still very common for students.

Unpaid internships are sold to students by telling them they are being paid in “experience”, and students graduating with an internship under their belt have a leg up on students who did not do an internship while they were at college.

How much does doing an internship help a student get a job after they graduate? A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) seems to suggest not much at all. According to the NACE study 37% of students completing at least one unpaid internship had a job offer by graduation. For students who had no unpaid internships during college 35% had a job offer by graduation. There does not appear to be much benefit for students doing the unpaid internship if the point of the internship is to help the student find a job. Organizations that offer unpaid internships do not seem to offer many of their interns a job after graduation. Companies who hire recent college graduates do not seem to consider an unpaid internship an indication the intern received valuable training.

Interestingly 63% students who completed a paid internship during college received at least one job offer before graduation.

The data seems to suggest that employers consider unpaid internships to be worth what the internship provider paid the intern, nothing. In contrast, interns who receive a paid internship appear to be considered to have learned something of value in their internship that will help them at their new jobs. Employers seem to think interns who were paid must be valuable and internship providers who pay their interns invest more in their interns’ success.

Thankfully unpaid internships are becoming a thing of the past. Employers have lost enough court decisions and the state and federal departments of labor are cracking down enough that employers are getting the message. Now we need to help students understand they are not being helped by an unpaid internship. They are only helping to perpetuate an unfair system that rewards wealth and connections. Work experience is helpful and there is nothing wrong with offering an entry level wage for an entry level job. However, replacing entry level paid positions with unpaid internships only helps unscrupulous employers. This study shows that unpaid internships do not help students to find a job even with all the valuable experience they earned during their internship.

NACE study synopsis.
Article from The Atlantic magazine about unpaid internships.
Article from the Auburn Plainsman student newspaper.

If you have worked an unpaid internship, especially after graduation, contact Atlanta employment lawyer Ben Kandy.

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