Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

The value of unpaid internships

February 6th, 2012 · No Comments · Uncategorized

The New York Times published a set of opinions on unpaid internships – do they exploit young people or provide them with valuable experience?  The opinions presented are fairly brief and, therefore, do not really get into a substantive debate of the issues on this topic but they do hit on some interesting points. 

This debate is of course largely a legal one.  For a Canadian perspective on that question, take a look at my colleague David Doorey’s post from the fall. 

As a researcher of learning and development I am more interested in the value of unpaid internships for career development of young workers.  From a learning perspective, there are at least two things to consider.  First, do unpaid interns actually learn in these placements?  And second, how does the lack of compensation affect motivation to learn?

Whether or not interns learn anything while on the job depends largely on the employer and the nature of the placement.  There is some research to indicate that few of these placements actually support valuable work experience on the part of the intern.  The Economic Policy Institute released a study wherein they reported that the unpaid internships they reviewed contained “no explicit academic training component.”  I am certain that you have heard the same anecdotes that I have about interns spending the summer filing papers, answering phones, and running irrelevant errands.  If that is the case, then the potential for learning is clearly diminished. 

There is still of course the issue of access to networks.  Internships, paid or unpaid, are not only about the experience itself.  They are also about the connections that can be made with players in the industry and about simple exposure to a network within an industry.  While this is not learning, it is a large part of career development.  So at a minimum, even unpaid internships with crappy tasks might allow the workers to make connections they would not have been able to make otherwise. 

The motivation argument also works in favour of unpaid internships.  The first motivational force that comes to mind for me when I think of unpaid labour is cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is a psychological reaction to inconsistencies between thoughts and actions.  It is the discomfort one feels when what they are doing contradicts their beliefs, values, or cognitions.  In the case of unpaid internships, one must resolve the fact that they are doing work for no pay.  In cases where the learning opportunities are high, the dissonance would be resolved easily – “it is not for money, it is for experience.”  In the case where the work is tedious and unrelated to the individual’s professional aspirations, the person is left seeking a way to resolve the dissonance.  The intern can decide to either change their behaviour or change their thoughts.  This would mean that the intern would either quit or believe with more force and conviction that the internship is valuable.  A ‘pop culture’ example of the latter case would be the Anne Hathaway character in the Devil Wears Prada.  The classic case where the young ingenue works terribly hard despite all kinds of mistreatment because they believe they must ‘pay their dues.’  At the end of the experience, that individual is likely to believe that they learned a great deal from fetching coffee and typing up correspondence. 

From a psychological perspective, it appears as though it would be pretty easy to entice people to accept unpaid internships and to maintain their commitment to the experience for the length of the placement.  These observations are of course somewhat disconnected from the moral, ethical, and legal arguments as to whether unpaid internships should be supported.  They do lend some insights into the potential value of the internship experience and to the limitations of asking interns to directly report how valuable the experience was for them?


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