January 5, 2022


In Defense of Unpaid Internships

By: Brittany Hunter

In 1979, comedians at the famous Comedy Store in Los Angeles went on strike, demanding that they be paid for their performances.

Mitzy Shore, the owner, was hurt. The Comedy Store gave aspiring comedians the opportunity to workshop their material in front of live audiences to see if they had what it took to make it. For many, this opportunity led them to appearances on the Tonight Show or sold out venues. 

This workshop model also allowed Mitzy to afford the upkeep necessary to turn the Comedy Store into the Mecca of comedy it’s recognized as today. 

Many burgeoning comics saw Mitzy’s arrangement as immoral and exploitative. Others were thankful that she gave them a place to learn the skills and gain the experience they needed to become successful—a fact that can’t be denied when you look at the caliber of talent that came out of the  Comedy Store.

The debate in which Mitzi found herself engaged in 1979 had a larger theme that is still a hot button issue today: should for-profit entities be allowed to offer unpaid internships?

The term intern usually conjures up images of young adults grabbing coffee or filing paperwork, rather than a comedian workshopping material on stage, but both give the actors the experience they must have to begin and build their careers.

A primary precept of the free market is the belief that when a person creates value, that value can be exchanged for compensation. But how can a person trade value if they don’t have the skills necessary to do so? Here lies the importance of unpaid internships. 

As Derek Thompson wrote:

Internships were once called apprenticeships. They allowed (mostly) young men to spend time learning a trade by paying the company with a time of free labor. It was a winner because after the apprenticeship men could look forward to a lifetime of higher pay by becoming a skilled tradesman.

He’s exactly right. Internships, whether comedic, corporate, or political, are for those who are fresh in the field. These opportunities help individuals gain the experience they need to have a fighting chance in a competitive job market—something that is now more important than ever. 

Unlike our grandparents’ day, college degrees are now a dime a dozen. Everyone has them and they no longer set you apart from other candidates. In fact, sometimes they hurt.

If you’re a recent grad who spent years hitting the books, you’ve likely not gained any real world experience. Your knowledge is confined to the content you read in textbooks and not what actually happens in the real world.

An employer is looking to hire someone who can hit the ground running. Someone with a college degree but no real world experience might find themselves beaten out by someone who may be less educated in the traditional sense of the word, but more experienced and skilled.

In fact, as someone without a college degree, I can give a firsthand account.

Before dropping out of college I took an unpaid internship with a political candidate running for the U.S. Senate. I sat in the basement of an office drinking Mountain Dew, sour gummy worms, putting data in spreadsheets. Was it glamorous? No. Did I learn a lot about the political process? Absolutely. 

That unpaid internship not only gave me experience, it allowed me to network with others in my field. It helped me obtain my next internship in DC which, because of my experience, was paid. That internship led me to my next internship which, armed with more experience, paid even better than the previous one. 

I paid my dues. I learned the skills I knew I needed. And I worked my way up. In the absence of a degree, I built a resume full of experience and references.

Now, the internship that helped me build my career is under attack by those who, much like the comedians on strike in the 70s, find the practice immoral and exploitative.

The federal government has tried to restrict the number of unpaid internships, making it harder for private, for-profit entities to hire unpaid interns. For-profits only qualify if it can attest that six conditions are met. The most important to this conversation is point four.

“4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded”

Looking at these rules closely, it’s hard to imagine how any for-profit would qualify. 

As Brian Captain writes:

I’m going to categorically state: No unpaid internship in the for-profit sector ever has or ever will satisfy these rules! Why? Because Rule #4 is absurd beyond belief.

Simple question: Why on earth would a for-profit firm hire interns from whom the firm derives “no immediate advantage”?

He continues:

What makes these rules so stupid? Simple: Internships are vocational education. If schools can educate students in exchange for their tuition, why can’t businesses educate students in exchange for their labor? No reason, just anti-market bigotry.

The anti-market crusaders decry these internships as a corporate attempt to get free labor at the experience of vulnerable individuals. But as has been explained, this simply isn’t true.

Those against unpaid internships also assume that once banned, these same organizations and companies will change their structure, offering the same internships for pay. And that just won’t happen.

Companies would not be able to afford to pay their interns, and these positions would likely be cut altogether, eliminating vital opportunities. 

The fact of the matter is, all parties involved benefit from unpaid internships. And without them, many successful careers, my own included, would never have been able to occur.