What We’re Telling Students By Hiring Them as Unpaid Interns

26 Mar

Looking DownA couple weeks ago a social enterprise that I love posts an internship opportunity online. At work, I share jobs and internships in the nonprofit and social enterprise space with students so I take a look. It’s a 40 hour a week, 10 week internship and it’s unpaid.

At first I think nothing of it. I come across internships like this all the time. Plus, I get it – social enterprises and nonprofits are on tight budgets and students with little work experience need a way to get their foot in the door. And let’s not forget the invaluable network that’s showered upon them in lieu of compensation.

But this time I take a moment and really think about what this internship represents. I think about what it means for the students that apply. I think about my own experiences working in the social impact space for free. And pretty quickly I’m angry and ashamed. Why? Here’s what unpaid internships are really telling students:

You Aren’t Worth Much: The social impact space can be really bad about accurately valuing the work of it’s employees. We want to pour our energy, skills, and knowledge into something because it’s a worthy cause and can forget how much all of those things are worth. Unpaid internships further ingrain this idea. We are teaching students that they have nothing to contribute that we value monetarily. Not their time, not their enthusiasm; not their college education. And if failing to value what students bring to our organizations wasn’t bad enough, we’re also lowering their expectations of what they are worth for every internship and job in the foreseeable future.

You Better Be Well Off: Unpaid internships are a socioeconomic barrier to getting ahead. You want to gain that invaluable experience and network this summer? Mom and dad better be able to pay for your rent and food or you better be a master of mooching off your successful friends. And that’s only if you only have yourself to worry about. This seriously limits a pool of candidates and the diversity that many social enterprises apparently value; which brings me to my final point..

You Aren’t Part of the Mission: How can an organization that stands for a better, more responsible world forget that it has a responsibility to its own employees? Our interns probably aren’t cancer patients or disaster survivors, but they’re about as close to home as it gets. We have to take care of ourselves before we can really take care of others and that includes our interns. It’s not selfish. It’s sustainable.

So after this heated mental tangent, I decide not to put the internship into our newsletter. I like to believe that my organization and the social impact space in general stands for win-win solutions in business, society, and the environment. In my opinion, unpaid internships do not reflect that.

photo credit: one_clear_vision, shutterstock

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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Economy 2.0, Living 2.0


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