A Philosopher's Blog

Should Interns be Paid?

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2011
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Some college majors provide (or even require) professional internships. In general, these involve students working within their field (be it law, nutrition, chemical engineering, business or other field) in an educational context. These internships are generally seen as rather desirable since they are supposed to provide useful, practical experience in the field of the sort that is difficult (or impossible) to recreate in the classroom. They also often provide the students with a foot in the door for later employment.

Some of these internships are paid (for example, my nephew has been interning as a chemical engineer and the company pays him a nice stipend and treats him very well). Some internships are unpaid (for example, a friend of mine is doing numerous unpaid internships this year). As might be imagined, the question of whether or not interns should be paid is a point of some concern to students.

On the one hand, a solid case can be made for internships being unpaid (though paid internships are, obviously, preferable for students-all other things being equal). After all, internships are supposed to provide students with valuable experience, training and contacts that can pay off when the student seeks employment. As such, students are compensated for the work they do with something of value, thus making it a fair situation. Also, if companies were expected to pay interns, it would seem more sensible for them to hire someone to do the work that an intern would do-after all, the company could get someone with more experience and, in today’s economy, there are many quality employees who are desperate for work.

On the other hand, a solid case can be made for paying interns. After all, interns typically do actual work and thus create financial value for the company, thus they would seem to be entitled to financial compensation. After all, as the defenders of CEO grade pay always argue, people need to be properly compensated for their work. Otherwise the person is being exploited and this would seem to be unfair and perhaps could be considered theft.

One obvious objection is that the students, as noted above, are being compensated. They are undergoing an educational experience and making contacts. In fact, since students pay for their actual classes it can be argued they are getting a good deal if they do not have to pay the company who is providing that education. After all, professors do not pay students. Rather, students are paid to be taught.

A reply to this objection is that the work students do for professors is not work that profits the professor. For example, my students do not do research that I use in my books, they do not grade papers for me, and so on.  Rather, the professor works to teach the students and the work the students do is supposed to be entirely for their own education. When students (typically graduate students) work for professors, they are compensated (usually poorly) as teaching assistants or research assistants. If not, the professor is really exploiting them and should be suitably punished for such misdeeds.

In the case of students interning with companies they are typically doing actual work for the company and this would seem to require suitable compensation. Naturally, the fact that the student is a student and also getting something from the company other than money should be taken into account. However, fair payment for work done certainly seems fair.

In some cases it can be argued that the value of the internship is such that the student is fully compensated and there would be no justification for an additional financial compensation.  However, some internships involve students being used in place of temps or to do tasks that have little (or no)educational value-but do save the company money. For example, my friend recently spent a week looking up information about foods for a hospital so that the paid professionals could do their calorie counts. This sort of look up is boring and tedious work and can, in fact, be done by software. However, the software is expensive and the interns are free labor, thus saving the hospital a lot of money. As might be imagined, this was not exactly a valuable educational experience for my friend. Given the nature of this sort of work, it certainly seems reasonable to either not have interns do it (since it lacks educational value) or to pay them for their work.

My overall view is that interns should be properly compensated for their efforts, but that this compensation need not be financial. The professors supervising the internships should, as might be expected, take pains to ensure that they are sending their students into internships that will provide educational experience, etc. and not simply providing companies with free labor.

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5 Responses

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  1. anon said, on November 7, 2011 at 9:47 am

    I believe it makes sense to pay interns if they are working on something for the company, not necessarily producing “output” for it (research does not always produce “output” but it can be very valuable even it is just learning what doesn’t work). If someone stuck with the excuse that interns should be unpaid because they are learning then could they not also use that same argument to reduce the pay for regular employees too? Just about everybody learns things on occassion from their job, including the CEO. Whether it be a completely new skill or something that reinforces their current beliefs.

  2. WTP said, on November 7, 2011 at 11:31 am

    If the interns aren’t getting the experience that you were expecting, don’t send that company any more interns. If interns aren’t getting anything out of the experience, then they shouldn’t partake…unless they’re not too smart.

    Generally, the higher the technical requirements of an internship, the lower the supply of interns thus the more competition for interns and the more they will be paid. Seen it in various companies where I have worked. Nobody forced the company to pay them and it costs a company money just in paperwork, insurance, etc. to hire them. If the value they provide excedes the cost and hassel of hiring them, they will be paid. There is competition for skilled labor. Turning interns into permanent employees once they graduate is a very cost-effective way of hiring people with little or no experience.

    • T. J. Babson said, on November 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

      WTP has it exactly right.

  3. Employer + Internship = Job | RIFT SUCCESS said, on November 11, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    [...] = ''; } The key to choosing the right internshipShould Interns be Paid?Strategizing Museum Internships to Meet (and Manage) Everyone’s Expectations – MAAMFrigz [...]

  4. Employer + Internship = Job | RIFT SUCCESS said, on November 11, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    [...] = ''; } The key to choosing the right internshipShould Interns be Paid?Strategizing Museum Internships to Meet (and Manage) Everyone’s Expectations – MAAMFrigz [...]


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