Unpaid work: should you really take that unpaid internship?


There is a secret economy of internships generated by unpaid workers. They attend meetings and sprinkle the corners of Zoom conversations in the hopes of landing a full-time job. They come from a variety of backgrounds, including college students, fresh grads with thousands of dollars in student debt, and adults with mortgages wishing to change careers.

Roughly 43% of US internships offered by for-profit companies are unpaid, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

If you’re wondering whether to join the estimated 500,000 to 1 million Americans who take unpaid jobs, this is the article for you.

Rewire the way you think about work

Nonetheless, it’s odd that people who don’t want to pay their workers still continue to post job ads asking for “money drainers” to work for free.

Why hire interns if their work doesn’t help the company? Perhaps the employer in question is a selfless soul who professes to want to “educate the youth out of the goodness of their hearts — yet unpaid interns are so inexperienced that they just can’t possibly pay them a minimum wage.”

Moreover, if these unpaid interns are actually unskilled as critics claim, why bother filling out the skill section on job boards when searching for unpaid workers? Employers, who want unpaid labor on job sites, are notorious for having unusually long lists of, you guessed it, skills and requirements.

Despite the old media perception that interns fetch coffee for “real employees” — this is not the case for many companies in 2022. Interns function as competent workers, debugging codes, developing user experiences, creating entire marketing plans, and analyzing user research full-time. To sum it up, unpaid labor benefits employers.

What you need to know: Maslow and the Motivation Hierarchy of Needs

Labor is an exchange for something — and that something should actually benefit you.

Companies often market self-fulfillment, the very last level that you typically prioritize once your primal basic requirements are met. “A great team” and self-actualization should not be the only benefits of labor exchange. Unpaid interns can’t demonstrate self-actualization to potential employers, and they can’t consume food or pay rent with the “perks of a great team.”

If most unpaid interns could pick between a paid and an unpaid internship to “self-actualize,” it is safe to assume that most would rather self-actualize at a paid internship.

Therefore, the less the worker’s basic needs are met by a company due to the lack of a paycheck, the more the unpaid worker needs to be critical of the company and its projects.

Image: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Attributed to Microvector.

What exactly are you losing when you devote your day to a company that doesn’t pay you?

Here is a list to get you started, so you can analyze the user-experience of your unpaid offer:

  • Recognizable company name on your resume. Are you exchanging your labor for a big-name company that at least gives you industry status? If the company isn’t recognizable by name alone, does the smaller company make up for their lack of pay and social clout by giving you a title and projects that are impressive enough to future employers?
  • Professional and public documentation of your contributions. Are you guaranteed a plethora of professionally documented and published projects that can be presented to future product teams upon exit?
  • Entry to events that you would not normally be able to access. Does the company give free access to conventions, vacations, and meetings that are well outside your price range?
  • An internship that actually educates you. Do you have time to learn new software or attend skill-building classes for your portfolio? An internship that keeps interns so stacked with deadlines to the point where your senior members get irritated when you have questions is a working mill, not an internship.

If you aren’t receiving any of the above in exchange for your unpaid labor, you should feel comfortable searching for a better (hopefully paid) role. You should not feel desperate to accept an unpaid position because you fear losing out on an opportunity. There are many unpaid positions available, simply because many companies wish to hire workers that they do not have to pay.

You’ll be fine.

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