Number Crunch

A Lot of Companies Don’t Pay Interns — and That’s a Problem

Some of these interns sure look a lot like employees

Marker Editors
Published in
2 min readMar 11, 2021
Number Crunch logo next to a giant dollar sign and below the text “43%: Share of internships at for-profit companies that are unpaid Source: Washington Post”

43%: That’s the share of internships offered by for-profit companies in the United States that are unpaid, according data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, per the Washington Post.

While unpaid internships have long been a subject of contention, Jane Slater, a reporter at the NFL Network, kicked off a furious online debate last week when she bemoaned the negative comments she’d received for posting an unpaid internship opportunity. Supportive replies were largely in the vein of how much unpaid intern work someone did “back in my day” or that old chestnut about “paying your dues” to get ahead in a profession.

The folks complaining about entitled youths failed to recognize, despite several commenters pointing it out, how the practice of hiring unpaid interns perpetuates a system in which only those with the means to work for nothing gain the experience and connections required to move up in corporate America.

The U.S. Department of Labor does allow employers to offer unpaid internships, on the condition that they meet certain educational criteria. Still, the extent to which employers rely on unpaid interns and require internship experience for entry-level jobs deepens structural inequities in society. The 43% figure is from 2019, and while we don’t yet have data on how the pandemic affected this, reports indicate that paid internships dried up during the pandemic, and at least one industry blog suggested (with a wink and a nudge) that unpaid interns may be the solution to finding labor during the pandemic.

Slater, meanwhile, defended her tweet and attempted to brush off any notions of privilege by noting that she had worked as an unpaid intern while doing a double major in college and working a job to pay the bills — only for a helpful commenter to point out that Slater is the granddaughter of a Texas chili baron.

Back in my day, I had to pay employers to let me intern.

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