Unpaid internships don't boost job prospects: U.S. data

It's paid work that leads to job offers, high starting salaries

The debate over unpaid internships usually goes like this. Those in favour say they’re a necessary evil and that students who take them on are getting job free training and a foot in the door to a paid job. Those opposed argue the gigs exploit desperate people who are willing to work for free just for a foot in the door to a job, and besides that, there’s also the fact that most are probably illegal.

That debate may soon be over. New data suggest unpaid internships aren’t leading to jobs.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed 9,200 U.S. students in their graduating year this spring. Among those who did paid internships, 63.1 percent had at least one job offer, compared to 37 per cent of those who did unpaid internships and 35.2 per cent of those who did none. That suggests unpaid gigs only boosted job prospects a tiny bit, if at all.

Those who did unpaid internships and then found jobs fared much worse in terms of pay. The median starting salary for new graduates with paid internships was $51,930 compared to $35,721 for those who did unpaid internships and $37,087 for those with no internships.

It’s easy to assume those who did unpaid internships are the ones with their heads in the clouds, pursuing journalism, fashion, film, dance or other vocations where unpaid work and low starting salaries are expected, but that’s only part of the story. The Atlantic points to data that show the number of unpaid internships is fairly evenly spread across majors from English to engineering, although paid internships are more common in some fields, like engineering and accounting.

Could it be that employers hiring new graduates can tell unpaid internships from paid ones, and favour the paid? That’s certainly plausible looking at my own experience in journalism where everyone knows which media outlets pay and which don’t. I would bet that the best get the paid jobs. If that’s the case, then unpaid internships are nothing more than a cruel way to sort graduates.