Are Unpaid Internships Destroying America?

This is the provocative title of a post from Derek Thompson at the Business blog of The Atlantic. It is built around Anya Kamenetz’ article in the NYT three years ago. I’ll reproduce my comment here, which sums up arguments made over the years on this blog.

Unpaid internships are often unfair and illegal (see the Fair Labor Standards Act).

The short explanation: if you’re contributing to a company, you deserve a salary. Call it an internship, a job, a contract, an assignment – it’s all the same. If your internship is actually an apprenticeship where you’re a drain on a company that goes out of its way to train you, it’s legal.

Yes, interns gain valuable experience. But aren’t all employees benefiting from their work experience? It leads to improved productivity, pay increases and promotions. Entry-level employees already receive a lower, entry-level salary for their lower productivity.

“I do think the internships paid off, inasmuch as they led to other internships and, eventually, to jobish things.”

This illustrates well the collective action problem: some time ago you could get a job out of school, then to get a leg up, you would do an internships, then everybody does and you need two to get ahead, then everybody has two… This is where we are now. There is a law against it. It is just ignored because graduate students have little power in the job market and their internships are just a transition.

More questions are addressed at Thanks for talking about the issue.

If by any chance I get visitors coming from The Atlantic looking for more, have a look at the FAQ for more answers or click on the tags such as “Legal” for more references.


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