A friend posted an article on a popular social media site. It called into question the legitimacy and legality of unpaid internships. I have only ever taken one unpaid internship in my career (so far) and that was while I was still in college and had financial aid from my parents (I even had to pay for housing and transportation). I loved the company I was working for and I eventually found a way to make money, but after reading this article I do not know if I would take another unpaid internship in the future.
The article titled, Half of Us Are Victims of This Illegal Act After College. It's Really Not Ok. is more of an illustrated article or infographic. It is written by Joseph Lamour with illustration by Matt Bors. The article got me thinking about my past and possible future with internships.
While in college I held two different internships. After graduating I have done two more. Luckily the latter two paid (a little) and offered free or reduced cost housing (they were in different states than my permanent residence). My very first internship ever also paid and I was able to live at my parents' house (free rent!). The internship I spoke of above was my second internship, in California, and I needed it to graduate (for my Minor). The cost of living in California is very different that the cost of living in my home state of Nebraska. According to Salary.com I would be down about $4,783* in disposable income (assuming I made any money, which I was not going to)! According to another site, Cityrating.com, I would have to make substantially more money than that to enjoy the level of living I was accustomed to in Nebraska. It would have been hard to do this while making no money.
Back to the article. One of the poignant parts of the article was when the author described people's legitimizing of unpaid internships. I had heard all of them before from the people offering internships, teachers, parents, etc. The bar graph that followed helped illustrate how untrue some of these claims are. The most heard defense of an unpaid internship in theatre (that I've heard) is "It could lead to a job". I know some people who are the exceptions to the rule, yet most people do not experience this rare gem. I was not one of these people. My internship in California did not "pay out" into a hiring.
On the flip side, one of my volunteer experiences in high school did allow me to get my foot into a theatre that later hired me as an overhire stitcher/crafts person. This position then lead to my next job as a lead costumer on A Christmas Carol tour. I was able to volunteer because I was still in high school and was thankfully provided for by my parents. Little did I know that my connection back in high school with the local theatre would aid in my first job out of college. This antidote is more to illustrate the phrase "It's not what you know, it's who you know". I firmly believe in this as truth.
An unpaid internship can get you connections yes, but will you be able to support yourself on no pay; and for how long? There are many internships I have looked at and apprenticeships I have ogled at; unfortunately most if not all of these amazing opportunities were tarnished because they were unpaid in a city whose cost of living was decidedly above my reach. If connections are what you are after it might be easier on your wallet to work a job that pays decent and contact people in the field you wish to enter.
(Another antidote!) I took a public relations course during my time at my university. In this class our professor assigned each of us to find a PR professional in an area of the US that we wished to live. Then, and here comes the scary part, we had to contact them and ask for an interview. It was just informational, no job on the line, no resume given. It was a way to meet someone who could end up a great connection if we were choosing to enter that field. I am very grateful to that professor for showing me a way to connect with my role models (in my field) and to gain information from them. In my opinion this may be as valuable or slightly more valuable than an unpaid internship.
The arguments surrounding unpaid internships are tough. They include legal, ethical, and financial questions that are not easy to navigate. I hope the article I cited above will open a dialogue amongst us young professionals so that we may make better informed decisions when it comes to accepting internships.
*based on a $14000 income using the two different sites' cost of living calculators