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Why Unpaid Internships Need To Go

Jeremy Hitchcock: Paying interns is good business -- and it’s the right thing to do. In this Oct. 23, 2013 file photo, applicants arrive for an internship job fair in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)closemore
Jeremy Hitchcock: Paying interns is good business -- and it’s the right thing to do. In this Oct. 23, 2013 file photo, applicants arrive for an internship job fair in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

A couple centuries ago, if a person wanted to be a barrel-maker, he would apprentice himself to a cooper. He would learn the trade of shaping wooden staves and cinching them with iron hoops.

The cooper’s apprentice would be housed, and fed. But not paid. He would, in fact, “pay” his employer with his labor — and would get his education in return. It was an economic model that worked really well then.

But it’s a model that is about as widely relevant today as the wooden barrel.

At Dyn, we write and run software that improves Internet performance. We don’t have apprentices, but we do have interns. Our interns come to us with far more education in our “trade” than that cooper’s apprentice had when he walked in the door. We give interns their first real-world place to try their chops, but we are by no means the beginning and end of their education (no colleges offered majors in barrel-making in colonial days).

These people are providing us with a valuable service. We’re getting fresh ideas, smart workers, mentoring opportunities for our staff and we’re building a pipeline of talent.

Unlike apprentices of old, today’s interns should be paid for their labor. In money. Paying interns is good business — and it’s the right thing to do. Unpaid internships persist because companies get away with offering them, and many students feel obligated to take them. It’s time for a change.

On any given day, 10 percent of our workforce is made up of interns. There’s Meghan Quirk, she’s a marketing analyst intern. And there’s Patrick Torbin, he is a customer acquisition intern. And then there are the “graduates” like Liuxi Chen who is a web developer or Jameson Luks who is a business development rep.

These people are providing us with a valuable service. We’re getting fresh ideas, smart workers, mentoring opportunities for our staff and we’re building a pipeline of talent.

To many companies, student interns represent a free source of labor. Interns deliver coffee, pick up lunch, sort mail. Many students feel like they have to take one of these positions to get ‘credible’ work experience. But the value of unpaid internships has been called into serious question.

A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that unpaid interns received no economic advantage in the job market compared with their peers who did no internship at all. When they entered the job market, former interns who had been paid enjoyed starting salaries $16,000 higher than those who toiled at internships for no pay.

At our company, interns get paid. And they do not get us lunch, or coffee. They work shoulder-to-shoulder with our staff, writing and running software, helping market our products, talking to our customers. And I think we’re getting as much — or more — than we’re giving.

A few years ago, Brian came to intern with us. He took a problem that his staff mentor presented to him, and walked away without saying much. A couple days later, he came back with a phenomenal solution for how to run a process over multiple machines, looking for errors or inconsistencies across them. It was an elegant idea, brilliantly executed. I don’t think anybody would argue that Brian deserved compensation.

Internships are a great way for us to “try out” potential employees — an internship is far more informative than a job interview. Brian was not a kid who would have interviewed well. He came in alongside a far more gregarious peer who was certainly smart, and seemed like the guy everyone wanted to work with. Turns out, Brian was the better bet. We would never have known that from an interview alone.

Our former interns are web designers, staff attorneys, and accounting specialists. Interns are an important talent pipeline. We select interns carefully, and we want them to feel great about being here. If they leave an internship feeling exploited, what are the chances that they will come back after they graduate? What are the chances that they are going to suggest our company to their friends at school? Or, as a colleague of mine said when I posed this question: “exploiting the youngest, most eager and most vulnerable does not seem like a long-term winning strategy to me.” Me, either.

if we are not going to pay interns, aren’t we really limiting our intern pool to kids who can afford to work for free? Isn’t that kind of antithetical to the American Dream?

And — as recent lawsuits have made clear — many unpaid internships run afoul of federal regulations. The Labor Department has strict rules about the conditions under which internships at for-profit companies can go unpaid. (In some instances, colleges will not allow students to receive payment and credit for an internship. We have, in fact, had a few interns at Dyn whose schools would not allow them to be paid because they were also earning college credit. But I don’t like it, and I wish colleges and universities would scrap this practice, too.)

There is something else problematic about the unpaid-intern model: if we are not going to pay interns, aren’t we really limiting our intern pool to kids who can afford to work for free? Isn’t that kind of antithetical to the American Dream?

We value the people who work for us as interns. We want them to have a great experience. Having them go broke in the process, or feel exploited, is counterproductive and bad for business.

Unless the economy is going back to the wooden barrel model, it’s time for companies to pay these folks what they deserve.


Related:

Jeremy Hitchcock Cognoscenti contributor
Jeremy Hitchcock is CEO of the global Internet performance company, Dyn. He leads the senior management team by setting the company’s strategic direction and driving the product vision.

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