While federal law has long prohibited unpaid internships unless the net benefit is to the intern, not the employer, the reality is that unpaid internships that don't meet that standard are commonplace. In many industries these internships are a normal part of gaining experience that prepares candidates for paying work in the field. Unpaid internships aren't going away any time soon, lawsuits or no lawsuits.
And that's not a bad thing. For many recent graduates, unpaid internships – even the ones that consist mainly of grunt work – are the difference between having a résumé with some experience on it or having an empty résumé that will go straight into an employer's reject pile. In this job market, unpaid internship experience can be what makes the difference between getting interviews and job offers or remaining unemployed.
Opponents of unpaid internships like to argue that those interns are doing work that should be paid, and that they're displacing paying jobs. But the reality is that if employers were required to pay for that work, they wouldn't hire those interns at all. Instead, they would hire candidates with more experience, leaving more recent grads unemployed – potentially for a long time. After all, if you're a business owner choosing between someone with no work experience and someone with three years of experience, you're going to hire the more experienced candidate. Where's the incentive to take a risk on and spend time training the candidate with no experience, when for the same salary you can hire someone who already knows what they're doing and won't need as much supervision?
So the choice isn't between paying interns and not paying them; it's between making it easier for students and recent graduates to get a certain kind of work experience that will eventually lead to paying work or making it harder for them.
In today's world, a college degree no longer opens doors the way it used to. Work experience matters enormously. Candidates with newly minted degrees, great grades and good extracurricular activities but no work experience face a huge struggle in getting job interviews, let alone offers. Candidates need to have on-the-job experience on their résumés, and they're generally not going to get it if they're competing against the more experienced candidates who crowd the pool for paying positions.
But in exchange for 20 hours of their time per week for a few months, interns can get job experience and references who will vouch for their work habits. That's hugely valuable when you're just starting out. And in fact, many former unpaid interns credit those jobs for helping them land their next jobs – which paid.
If we take the option of unpaid internships away from people who want it, we'll just make it harder for inexperienced candidates in a job market that's already stacked against them. And in a market like this one, making it harder for candidates to become more competitive is borderline cruel.
Ask a recent grad if they'd rather have some experience on their résumé, even if unpaid, or none at all. The smart ones want the experience.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.