It’s no secret that employers want to hire candidates with hands-on, professional experience. There are some lessons and skills that just can’t be taught in a classroom setting. For this reason, many university programs require their students to complete at least one internship before they graduate. And, usually, those student interns go on to form larger professional networks, receive more job offers, and earn more money.

All of this is great…unless these interns aren’t paid for their work–something that happens about 43% of the time. More often than you thought, right?

It’s also more prevalent in some industries than others. The communications industry is one of them. In recent years, as much as 59% of nationwide communications internships have been unpaid.

As a student studying advertising and public relations, I’ve experienced this first-hand. I remember the day when I congratulated my roommate for acquiring an engineering internship where she would be paid $26 per hour, then opening Handshake to see “Unpaid” written under the entire first page of listings for internships in my field…truly defeating.

Problems with Unpaid Internships

I understand how careers in the hard sciences often pay higher than those in communications, and that internships are likely to reflect that. I’m not saying that the problem stems from interns being underpaid. I’m saying that it stems from them not being paid at all. This is problematic for multiple reasons.

Interns Do Real Work

If you’re running your internship program efficiently, interns are doing real work–work that you would make a wage for if it were assigned to you. Many employers even look to hire younger professionals for fresh ideas and business solutions. Ideas that can have a profound impact on the entire organization. Ideas that shouldn’t be free.

Internships Actually Cost Money

If students are completing an internship to fulfill a university requirement, they’re paying for the credits to take that “class”. For me, that cost about $2,000. Add in the cost of living (possible relocation, gas food, bills, etc.) and any other business expenses, and some interns can work their way up to being $6,000+ in the red. Also, they’re missing out on three or more months of paychecks, and with a busy schedule, there isn’t always much time or energy left to get another side job.

It Hurts the Students Who Need the Most Help

Students who struggle financially are hurt most by unpaid internships. Whether they come from a low-income family or they are working to pay their way through college (or both), they may not even see these opportunities as options. These students may have to turn down an internship with the employer of their dreams because of this.

Meanwhile, the students who can afford to complete an unpaid internship do so, put that experience down on their resume, and get more jobs and higher salaries due to their experience. So, the unpaid internship model is rather discriminatory, making “wealthy students wealthier, and poor students poorer.”

It’s Borderline Illegal

Unpaid internships are technically legal, as long as the intern is considered the “primary beneficiary” of the experience. There’s a seven-part test that the Department of Labor put together to determine this. It is, of course, very subjective. Many organizations get away with “compensating” interns in the form of “professional experience” and “industry skills”. Notice my quotation marks.

It seems like something that subjective and marginal should be an indicator that it may not be the right thing to do. And if recent events haven’t taught us this already, just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should.

Benefits of Paid Internships

Paying your interns doesn’t just benefit them–it also benefits you and your business. Here’s why:

It Helps You Recruit Better Talent

Even though they’re young, many students still know their worth. If they’re good at something, they’ll want to be paid for it, and they’re not even going to think about applying to an unpaid position. Speaking from experience, they’ll approach a job opening that says $15 per hour much differently than they’ll approach one that says $0.

It Boosts Morale

According to a study done by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, paid interns are 11% more likely to give their internship experience a top rating. When interns get paid, they’re probably more likely to feel rewarded and valued at your company. This boosted morale could result in them being more passionate about their work and therefore putting more effort into their work. It’s nice to have employees that show up and care.

You’re More Likely to Keep the Good Ones

This relates to the idea of boosting morale. If an intern feels rewarded, valued, and like a contributing member of your team, they’re likely to want to stay on board. On the flipside, one of the main reasons you’re probably running an internship program is to attract potential full-time employees. And you’re more likely to want them to stay if they’re producing good work and feel passionate about it. It’s a win-win.

So, please. Work is work. We all want the chance to live comfortably. Pay your interns.

About the Author

Kendall Lemmen is a senior at Grand Valley State University, studying Advertising and Public Relations with minors in Writing and Spanish. Alongside being a member of GVPRSSA, she has also been an Account Associate at GrandPR for over a year. She currently works as a Research Assistant for the GVSU Writing Department. Her PR specialties include writing and editing, document design, and market research. In her free time, Kendall enjoys reading, baking, and crafts.
Twitter: @kendalllemmen