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YouSpeak: Should All Student Interns Be Paid?

Debate heats up as companies are sued


There’s been a backlash lately against companies who hire unpaid interns. Last June, a federal district court judge found that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws when it failed to pay production interns who worked on the Oscar-winning film Black Swan. Similar class action suits have been brought by interns against the Heart Corporation, Gawker Media, and NBCUniversal. A grassroots effort to abolish the practice, the Fair Pay Campaign, is pressuring colleges to stop steering students into nonpaying internships, arguing that unpaid work can push students into debt or unfairly discriminate against lower-income students who can’t afford to take a nonpaying job.

A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers finds that a paid internship has distinct advantages over an unpaid internship. The survey reveals that 63.1 percent of paid interns who graduated in 2013 received a job offer, compared with 37 percent of those whose internships were unpaid. Those with paid internships also had a median starting salary in postgraduation jobs of $51,930, compared to $35,721 for those who had unpaid internships.

That said, there are plenty of defenders of unpaid internships who say that such internships can provide students with invaluable experience and contacts, often in highly competitive fields.

We want to know what you think. So this week’s “YouSpeak” asks: Should all student interns be paid?

YouSpeak” typically appears each Monday.

If you have a suggestion for a question you’d like us to ask, post it in the Comments section below.

Joe Chan

Joe Chan can be reached at joechan@bu.edu.

16 Comments on YouSpeak: Should All Student Interns Be Paid?

  • Pay for Work on 09.23.2013 at 7:04 am

    If a student is working at the internship–as opposed to only observing or shadowing–then they ought to be paid at least minimum wage.

    I could see a middle ground, student is at the job 40 hours, 24 paid working hours and 16 are unpaid observation…

    But we should not have interns doing jobs for free (or even min wage really) that a company would otherwise be paying someone a normal salary to do.

  • N. Klein on 09.23.2013 at 8:02 am

    I think internships should only be unpaid if the employer (mentor) is not gaining any financial benefit from the work of the intern. I was an unpaid intern, and while I learned some things, in retrospect it was a ripoff. I got to understand how finance works (I could have just read about it) and I worked for a summer on things that the company saved money on because they didn’t have to hire someone to do it. I should have made minimum wage.

  • Christopher Woodall on 09.23.2013 at 8:40 am

    Yes, all work should be compensate. There are a few exceptions… If I contribute to a community driven or open source project I don’t expect compensation, but if I am expected to be present at a place, do work in my skill area, and give up my IP rights without giving them to the commons I expect compensation

    Also, compensating your interns works out better for companies. It gives you a mental contract with the company where you now REALLY feel obligated to work

    • John on 09.23.2013 at 10:22 am

      Couldn’t have said it better than myself.

  • Behraam Baqai on 09.23.2013 at 8:46 am

    At the very least, students should not be forced to pay for the units that come with unpaid internship coursework. In my undergrad I did an unpaid internship, and legally was required to get credit for it through college units. Thus I had to pay for 1 summer unit to be allowed to work for free. Incredibly stupid.

    • Rebecca Sarver on 09.23.2013 at 10:39 am

      Wow, that’s like getting it coming and going! I agree if the internship is unpaid, then they should receive credit without paying for the course. It costs money to go to work – transportation, food, clothing, parking, etc. – and the student should be compensated in some manner. Or just call it volunteering.

      • ABurrus on 08.29.2015 at 11:30 am

        You are spot on in your comment. We get it going and coming! We pay for the course and then for transportation and everything in between having a job without compensation. Its a win win for the company and the institution —students should be compensated or the course should be free!

  • John on 09.23.2013 at 10:12 am

    I think bu is really screwing its students over by not copying the coop system northeastern has. Plenty of my friends who go there are giving themselves a HUGE boost in the job market while actually making tons of money. Maybe I’m naive, but I think if bu helped its students find coops (if they wanted one) the results would be dramatic.

  • Puja on 09.23.2013 at 11:00 am

    If you are doing work at a company or workplace. Not just shadowing and watching but actually doing things that they normally would have paid employees do, then the interns should be paid. And I personally do believe BU should have more coop opportunities like Northeastern has. I know that my brothers coop experience at Northeastern led to him having more work experience and basically having a job lined up for him after graduation.

  • Bruce Beiser on 09.23.2013 at 12:13 pm

    I have been in the workforce for several years and am working full time in my profession while pursuing additional education. I hire interns to augment my team during summer months. Companies generally do not engaged in activities which are not planned to augment the bottom line. Interns participate in helping the company complete projects or work which will benefit the company. The intern should be adequately compensated for their contribution. My company pays interns a wage commensurate with their level of experience and expected contribution, typically a small scalar multiple of the minimum wage. In addition, if interns are serving in a full time roll during their tenure, they are enrolled in the company’s full benefit package, including paid holidays, vacation accrual and 401K plan. Interns should be treated as what they are, entry level, full-time, short term employees and they should be compensated as such. To treat an intern in any other way is to demean and devalue them as individuals and to attempt to get something value for nothing on the part of the company. The University should work to ensure internships offered to BU students offer a complete work experience, which includes being compensated for one’s effort and contribution.

  • Sam on 09.23.2013 at 3:12 pm

    As a student watching the job market grow more and more competitive I do not mind it if my first few job experiences are unpaid. It is hard enough as is to even get one’s foot in the door for an entry level position. So if being compensated is going to make or break my chance at a hands-on experience, I would gladly accept the experience without pay. I would hope that this would translate to a higher salary (or at least a job) after graduation.

  • Anonymous on 09.23.2013 at 4:38 pm

    Pursuant to the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution, I do believe that all work should be compensated. In most cases, compensation will mean a wage or salary. While there is certainly an argument to be made that internships “compensate” you with experience, I don’t believe that quite cuts it- especially when you have no guarantees of landing a paying job as a result of that experience.

  • A Finance Individual on 09.23.2013 at 5:01 pm

    I am really surprise BU does not offer a co-op program, even my little rinky dinky high school offered a co-op. Companies should not hire interns to do a job that educated individual can do just to save money.

  • Former paid NBC Intern on 09.24.2013 at 12:02 am

    I understand the argument for all internships being paid, but I would argue against the “data” used in this case to back it up. Unpaid internships tend to be in certain industries (fashion, entertainment) and these industries tend to hire less and pay lower starting salaries. I would argue that even if they paid their interns, the interns would not reap the reward of the “distinct advantages” stated in the article.

  • Jane on 09.24.2013 at 1:24 pm

    Personally, I think that workers should be paid. There’s no such thing as standing around and observing AND learning enough to make it worth a person’s time. Check out what Propublica says about employers who abuse this system. http://www.propublica.org/series/temp-land

  • Taste of the Real World on 09.25.2013 at 6:55 pm

    Here’s a life teaching moment. Nobody forces you to take an internship, and so if you do, you do so knowing that it is unpaid. The requirements of the internship would be spelled out before beginning your learning opportunity, so you have a choice to exceed the requirements on your own or not to. Your employer shouldn’t exceed the agreement, and you wouldn’t be able to penalize you if you didn’t. What this is going to do is ruin internship opportunities for others behind you because now some employers may avoid hiring optional help for fear of being sued. Life is hard, people are going to hold you to the agreements you make, regardless of how you ‘feel’ about it later. If you want to get paid, go compete for and earn a Co-Op.

    Coming at this from a different angle, the photo shows text stating that internships are the new slavery. This of course is ridiculous and insulting because slaves did not have a choice to leave their situation and the conditions under which one interns are hardly the conditions that a 19th century slave might have endured.

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