How Internships Will Ruin Our Careers

A big queue of people on internships

Internships are a rite of passage for many millennials. Half of all college graduates have participated in an internship over the course of their studies, more than double the percentage of two decades ago. Internships offer students and young professionals real-life experiences to begin their careers, engaging them both intellectually and professionally in their industry of choice.

Yet some are beginning to wonder if internships are worth it. Given the state of internships today, it's a fair question.


Not all internships are created equal, as ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom, is learning. ProPublica's current research on internships has revealed that internships lack uniformity in how they are credited and reviewed, or what experiences count or don't count as intern experiences.

Casey McDermott, an intern working on a investigative research project on internships for ProPublica, shared with me that there are wide disparities within the intern experience. Her research has not yet revealed insight into industry trends, though interns in fields with greater demand and competition seem to be more likely to be underpaid and/or overworked, according to the data collected so far.

Mind you, none of these findings directly address the differences between paid and unpaid internships, and these differences are stark. (Of the hundreds of thousands of internships filled each year, estimates put the percentage of unpaid ones at anywhere from 25-50%.)

Research has shown that having done an unpaid internship is barely more likely to lead to a job than no internship experiences at all. Paid internships, in contrast, lead to nearly twice the rate of job offers. Unpaid interns are also more likely to be offered lower salaries. A study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers examined the issue, but could find no reason why unpaid interns fared so poorly in comparison to paid interns, even when field of study and GPAs were factored in. 


To make matters even worse, unpaid interns aren't covered by labor laws and thus aren't offered key legal protections. Just weeks ago, a New York district judge used the paid/unpaid delineation to excuse sexual harassment of an intern. Since no one is currently heading up the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, which oversees enforcement of the six-factor test to determine whether interns at private sector employers must be paid a minimum wage, interns have limited legal recourse and hardly any institutional support.

Working conditions like these ruin the value of an internship for future generations of Americans.

Whereas internships were once perceived to offer participants critical job skills, there is now no promise that any given internship will leave its participants better prepared for the real world.   

Like Jekyll and Hyde, internships have two faces.

For every internship that bestows upon its participants useful knowledge, there are many interns who spend their days running errands for their bosses or making coffee. On top of that, those who cannot afford to work an unpaid internship (hello, most of us) are excluded from the experience entirely because we can’t afford to not be paid. These experiences foster distrust of employers, instilling the next generation of workers with the same "I paid my dues" mindset that allows for the exploitation of their labor in the first place. Why work hard or give back when nothing seems to come of it?

These are not healthy or sustainable attitudes to be cultivating in a generation that by 2025 will comprise 75% of the workforce.


A recent study found 91% of employers expect applicants to have had one or two internships prior to graduation, presuming (perhaps) that those internships are adequate preparation for entering the workforce. How can we even entertain that notion when many internship experiences offer millennials little in terms of real job skills, or exclude less financially able students from participation? 

A well-prepared work force starts with internships that honor the most important commodity an intern offers: their time.

Not compensating interns appropriately for offering their time, whether that compensation is monetary or experience, is wasteful. It's robbery. It fundamentally flies in the face of the American ethos of being paid for your work. And it sends mixed messages to millennials about the value of their time and their contributions from their very first experience in the workforce.

If you listen to the complaints constantly being tossed around about young professionals — we are allegedly woefully unprepared, lack necessary skills, and have an insatiable need for affirmation — the importance of the varying quality of internships becomes even clearer. The fact that these internship practices are not partisan or industry-specific should raise red flags; what we're seeing is a structural challenge derived from an abundance of labor and an absence of jobs.

We may finally be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Exposés of exploited laborers, analyses of the potential legal implications of recent lawsuits brought by unpaid interns, and articles pondering if the unpaid internship is dead are circulating at a surprising clip. Lawmakers are beginning to investigate the legality of the "free labor" many interns provide.

Despite the sometimes-grim findings of her research, Casey McDermott expressed hope for the future of internships.

"Over the course of the last year, there has been a heightened awareness of internships, more people asking about protections and how to structure a quality internship. The goal [of our research] is to bring more transparency into how employers approach internships and how colleges and universities are driving the intern economy," she said.

Personally, I am still absolutely pro-internship, provided that the internship in question is valuable, helping the intern in question grown into a proactive and confident worker in the "real world." Yet the lack of uniformity in how we offer, develop, and structure internships means that having an internship on your résumé could very well mean nothing to your future employer — and that’s a massive problem for our generation and the future American workforce.