Unpaid vs. Paid Internships

Rick Teitloff

As long as internships have been around there’s always been that one burning question; should they be paid or unpaid? Some claim that unpaid internships are wrong and take advantage of students. Others say the educational experience is more than enough payment for the work of the intern.

David (APR, Fellow PRSA) and Marilyn (APR) Shank – the principals of Indianapolis-headquartered Shank Public Relations Counselors, Inc. – had to ask themselves that very question 16 years ago when they hired their first intern. For Shank Public Relations Counselors, the answer was easy. “In our eyes, interns should be paid for their work. For some not-for-profit companies it is a completely different story. But unpaid internships just aren’t for our company,” said David.

Let’s take a step back and ask something else; how is it legal to not pay interns for their work? “The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Department of Labor have addressed this issue and have stipulations that must be met by the employer’s internship program to have unpaid interns,” David explained, “We currently have a fair enough system as long as the rules are followed.”

So if it’s alright with PRSA and the Department of Labor to have unpaid interns, why would you ever pay an intern? “Because it’s the ethical thing to do. There are students who are putting themselves through college who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship. So it really keeps the door open for everyone,” said Marilyn. David added, “We (as employers) have a responsibility to help students. We don’t want working for us to be a hardship for interns. An internship is not a one way street, we learn from our interns just as they learn from us. There are also studies that show that paid interns go on to have more job offers and higher starting salaries.”

There are always exceptions. Is it more beneficial to have a paid internship where all you do is grunt work around the office or to have an experience intensive unpaid internship? Probably the latter. To go back to the original question; should internships be paid or unpaid? When all rules are followed, there really is no one size fits all answer. The answer is dependent on the requirements and circumstances of each intern and company.

Rick Teitloff is Shank Public Relations Counselors’ summer 2013 (paid) intern. Rick is a senior at Ball State University and will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public relations in December. To read more on this topic, go to shankpr.wordpress.com.

3 thoughts on “Unpaid vs. Paid Internships

  1. In your opinion, would you still accept an internship in a different city with many potential opportunities for the future but is unpaid?

  2. I am a student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and worked an unpaid internship this past summer. The article said that “for some not-for-profit companies it is a completely different story” whether interns should be paid or not. Would you take an unpaid internship if it was not a not-for-profit company?

    1. Yes, unpaid internships for nonprofit organizations make sense if you cannot find a paid internship. But don’t stay longer than six months. Continue looking for paid internships during your nonprofit experience.

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