Just Say ‘No’ To Unpaid Internships

It’s truly frustrating to read about how many young people are being exploited in unpaid, post-college internships that seem to promise job opportunities but never do. Alex Williams conveys the frustration and sense of futility that many young creative types face every day in “For Interns, All Work and No Payoff,” an article in today’s New York Times that is worth reading.

There’s nothing wrong with an internship that offers college credit in lieu of pay. College credits have a real economic value–sometimes quite a bit. But there’s outright abuse afoot when young people are expected to subsidize their employers–some of which are giant corporations–in internships that offer no compensation at all. Someone is always getting paid in these companies–just not the intern.

So what can you do if you just graduated from college, want to work in a competitive, creative career and can’t get a toehold? Do not start your career by taking an unpaid internship once you’re past the point at which you can get college credit. Never let others devalue you and your work. A company that does this, no matter how prestigious it appears, is not worth working for. Even as a newbie, you have something to contribute. Any company that wants to hire you for free knows that. Otherwise, why would managers want you around?

Instead, hold onto your power and use all of your smarts and creativity to figure out a way to get paid for the skills you have to offer. Put up a profile on a freelance marketplace. Create a website to market the skills that you have. Take a menial job to subsidize your creative work for a while, if that’s what you have to do to pay the rent.

Eventually, as you get more experience, you will become better and better at what you do and be able to charge more for your creative work. Your work samples may pave the way for a job at a company that treats employees with respect–and pays them a fair wage. At that point, you will have more negotiating power with an employer, because you will know the actual value that your work has to your customers on the marketplace. Maybe by then you will have discovered that you can make more on your own and don’t want that job after all.

After reporting on careers and entrepreneurship for a long time, I have come to the conclusion that what we now view as a “job” is going away. It probably won’t disappear completely, but it is going to become rarer. All labor market trends point in this direction. Just Google the phrase “contingent labor” and you will see what I mean.

Unfortunately, many people still view traditional W2 jobs with benefits as the only source of employment. They have been raised to believe that they need to wait for a company gatekeeper to tell them they are good enough to work–or else they can’t possibly support themselves. Looking at life this way is a recipe for victimization in today’s job market.

The flip side of this is that people who are not afraid to dive into self-employment and entrepreneurship–and to find ways to develop their talents and market their skills on their own–are going to thrive. There’s no rule book for this way of life. You’ve got to make things up as you go along. Living this way can be scary and uncertain–and may not generate a lot of support among the more corporate types you know. Still, if you embrace the adventure of it and figure out how to earn a living doing what you love in your own independent business, it can be a lot of fun, too. It beats doing coffee runs for a bunch of well-paid managers–for free.


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