Dear Employers, Pay Your Interns!

I’m very glad recent stories in the news are bringing the exploitative nature of unpaid internships to light. It’s no surprise that articles like “Unpaid Internships Exploit Young Workers” and “Unpaid Interships May be Illegal” are making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook among my peers starting out in PR and journalism.

It was only a few months ago when my Humber PR classmates and I were on the internship hunt. More often than not, internships were unpaid or compensated with negligible honourariums that wouldn’t even cover transportation costs. Many of my classmates and I felt outraged and frustrated by the abundance of unpaid internships and scarcity of internships that paid at least minimum wage. All of us are highly educated young professionals, with an undergraduate degree and a postgraduate education from a respected program. Cream of the crop – or so we were told. If this is the case, then why aren’t employers willing to pay a cent in exchange for our work?

With rising costs of living, unpaid internships are simply unacceptable. For a student or a recent graduate, an unpaid (or barely paid) internship means they are paying to work. Everyone has different financial means and a young professional should not be denied a valuable opportunity because they can’t afford it.

An internship with a salary shows that an organization values an intern’s time and work. This expectation is also a two-way street – by providing compensation, the employers have the right to hold an intern up to the standard of a paid employee.

That said, interns don’t expect lucrative pay from internships. More than anything, young professionals want valuable experiences to help start their careers. This doesn’t mean photocopying and general office duties – these tasks are the work of an administrative assistant, not an intern.

Interns are fully capable of bringing results and productivity to an organization when managed with the right expectations and delegated appropriate tasks. When the work of an intern helps achieve an organization’s bottom line, they should be compensated.

But where will change come from? It starts with challenging the status quo. More people need to be made aware of this situation that many young professionals face. Ultimately, change can only be enacted by the employer and the hiring organization but today, you can spread the word: that interns matter.

What’s your take on unpaid (vs. paid) internships?


14 thoughts on “Dear Employers, Pay Your Interns!

  1. Fantastic post, Stella – this is a hot issue! As has been suggested in so many articles lately, colleges and universities are complicit in this free labour arrangement and it’s time for some good old-fashioned debate about it!

    1. Yes! Colleges/universities can do so much more. If institutions required sponsoring organizations to provide salaries for internships, it would definitely raise the bar. If an institution can guarantee paid internships? HUGE draw for prospective students. Everyone wins.

  2. Wow! I’m certainly glad so many people are talking about this. I think a lot of the talk started when I posted this to my blog: Why I will not work for free (
    I don’t know where the CP reporter got her inspiration, but you should check out the links at the bottom of my post: The Star story makes a lot of good points about journalism internships, at least. I don’t know a lot about PR.

    1. Great post. Thanks for sharing, Bethany. This topic NEEDS to be talked about and employer attitudes toward interns MUST change. I wholeheartedly agree with you on unpaid internships creating a classist system in which only the privileged can afford opportunity.

      From what I understand (and correct me if I’m wrong), the culture of unpaid internships is far more entrenched in newspaper and magazine industries. Unfortunately, it seems like most fields nowadays (PR included) are heading toward replacing entry-level positions with unpaid interns. When corporations (!) or agencies – that can obviously afford to PAY their interns – are offering unpaid internships, there’s something inherently wrong.

  3. As a graduate of HumberPR and now a supervisor of two (incredible!) interns from the program, I can’t see how any organization willing to profit off an intern’s work cannot find reasonable compensation in the budget.

    If you’re an agency or corporate organization and you need an intern to pick up the slack but you can’t afford it – you didn’t budget correctly in the first place.

    @kat (#humberpr grad and @stellahklee’s supervisor 🙂

    1. Thanks, Kat.

      I feel lucky to have ended up with a valuable paid internship but in an ideal world, an intern shouldn’t FEEL lucky to be paid. Period.

  4. i did a 4 month, mon-fri, 9-5 internship at a huge international multi-billion dollar advertising agency, and got a $500 honorium at the end. they did pay for my metropass every month, but i had to find 1 full-time overnight job as well as 2 part-time waitressing jobs to support myself financially. it paid off, as i was one of the only interns offered a job at the end of it and it’s built my career to what it is now, but i do remember wishing that they would pay me at least a minimum wage — i was doing more work than their receptionist who was getting paid a 40K+ salary. most internships pay off huge… but the means of getting there is not right.

    i have mixed feelings about it though. if a company doesn’t need extra bodies, and doing a favour to the community by letting a few students intern with them as part of a co-op program or something, i don’t believe they should get paid a salary. BUT. if a company needs interns, (i.e. MTV, notorious for having 15+ interns every season and treating them like crap) they SHOULD pay them — as the company needs these people more than the people need the internship.

    of course having some extra bodies whether a company needs them or not, will benefit them (probably) in the end. but i’ve seen many interns abuse their internship and don’t do any work, and put a bad taste in employers’ mouths for other interns who are worthy of the time. until a standard or expectations can be set, for work quality, i don’t think this issue will be easily solved…

    1. I have a problem with any employer that feels hiring interns is “community service”. In this case, I don’t think they have a strong enough internship program in place in the first place.

      I don’t deny that there are interns out there who abuse the opportunity and slack off – but I would argue that if the internship had been paid from the beginning, maybe the intern would have felt a greater responsibility to perform better.

      But yes, I agree that this issue won’t be easily solved but it merits further discussion.

  5. I love this post! I recently graduated from college with a communications degree, I’m trying to break into the PR world, but it’s so hard! I live in a small town and would have to move at least an hour away from my parents house (where I can live for free) in order find a job, but finding a job is hard. I’ve found plenty of internships but, like you said, they’re all unpaid!! I just can’t afford to live on my own and work for free! For most of them you have to be a college junior or senior anyway. It’s very frustrating. Where are the jobs for the graduates!

    1. Sara, it’s definitely frustrating. If internships were decently paid, then recent graduates can take them to gain more experience, which in turn will also help them transition into an entry-level position. It’s already hard enough to get your foot in the door in PR and unpaid opportunities create an additional financial barrier. With more discussion like this, I hope the status quo changes. Thank you for reading and good luck on your job search!

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