Internship – To be paid or not to be paid?

Ever heard of cotton internships?* Nearly a century and a half ago colored men used to take up these international internships, mainly in US and parts of Europe. They used to work for free, just like many  students would do this summer.  The term used these days is different – Unpaid internship. Are unpaid internships THAT bad? The debate is still hot in the media. But before debating about whether internships should be paid or not we should try to define internships.

Internship – a job or a training?

There is a subtle line that differentiates a job or a training from an internship. A job is anything where you utilize a skill that you have already acquired. Training, as obvious from the word, is where you pick up a new skill.

An internship is trickier to define as it is something between both. Not quite there, not quite here. It involves application of a certain skill and at the same time it adds to the already existing skill set in some way or the other.

A job needs to be paid, since it is utilization of your skills and your labor should be compensated with wages. A training on the other hand helps you acquire a new skill which in turn would enable you to get higher wages and hence it feels natural that you pay for a training.

But what about an internship? Since it’s somewhere in between, do we think them being unpaid also lies somewhere in between of getting paid (as for job) or paying a fee (as for a training) and hence justified?

At Internshala, while we are yet to take a hardline stand, we strongly recommend in favor of paid internships whenever asked by employers because we believe unpaid internships are wrong for the following reasons –

  1. Unpaid internships create a non level playing field for students – Unpaid internships are exclusionary in nature. Since ‘experience’ (an often argued reward of an unpaid internship) does not pay for immediate rent and food bills, an unpaid internship becomes  a luxury which those with access to financial resources can afford and may deny a poor yet a bright student an equal shot at the opportunity. This essentially is in conflict with the ideal of a merit based society and promotes a reservation of a different kind; in favor of economically stronger sections.
  2. An unpaid internship discounts too much for experience and adds too little for value creation for the company
    In defense of unpaid internships, one major argument is that they provide experience and that experience helps you land an awesome job lateron. If that is the case, why stop just at internships and not extend the argument to a first job, or 2nd job and so on? Deep down are organizations not just taking advantage of vulnerable position a student finds himself in absence of a well defined regulation on internships in India?Agreed, an internship is different than a first job in many ways (longer tenure, higher output etc.) and companies do invest in mentoring and guiding the interns. But at the end of the day, companies hire interns purely for business reasons and not as a favor to students  (as often it is made to sound) and that tangible contribution to the bottom line should be rewarded in tangible ways.

    Average stipends in India for paid internship would range about ~5,000/- per month while average first job salaries about ~25,000/- per month (anecdotal). The non-monetory benefit (a.k.a ‘experience’) that the intern gains are compensated by the difference in the salary of an intern and a regular employee. Hence argument is not that interns should be paid exorbitant sums but that their work should be acknowledged duly.

  3. An internship is more likely to be meaningful when both the parties have skin in the game
    Paying your interns would make both the parties more responsible and committed. The employer would no longer be indifferent to what the intern does and in return the intern would feel obliged and incentivised to work. Hence paid internships are a win-win situation for both the employer and the intern.
  4. It makes business sense to pay interns
    While its true that many/majority of the employers offer unpaid internships, there are paid internships available too. And in absence of any other tangible differentiator, brighter students are likely to pick the paid internships over unpaid internships and you may lose a candidate who could contribute immensely, all for a saving of Rs. 10,000/- in total. Think about it!

Need for a change

Why then, if unethical, exclusionary, and unproductive; do unpaid internships still prevail all over the world and are popular as ever? The answer is that it is a two way process. Unpaid internships prevail because employers are sure that they can get interns to work for nothing. Students also are only too happy to work in a company that would make their CV stand out. But they don’t realize that they are  placing their future career at jeopardy by doing so, as firms are increasingly replacing regular employees with interns who are almost as good as the regular employee but would give away  labor for nothing. There is every chance that a few of years down the line, you might be thrown out of job or won’t be hired at the first place since free labor is flowing in.

Market is a tough opponent to beat and the invisible hand is mighty enough to suppress oppositions. But a strong legal framework, coupled with awareness among students about their rights can work wonders. Internship has grown into quite a big matter of concern for Indian students. Its high time the authorities also realize this and take necessary steps to regulate the sector.

What is Internshala’s stand?

If we are so against unpaid internships, why have we not barred employers from posting unpaid internships on our portal?

While we may do so at some point, we have held ourselves back from making a decision now because we do not yet fully understand the implications of any such strong decision. There are a few sectors where the opportunities are so limited (such as Core engineering subjects of Civil, Mechanical, Chemical Engineering etc.) or the competition so fierce (say Journalism, Media, Fashion, IT etc.) that the only alternative available to an unpaid internship is a summer training (where students have to pay) or a fake internship certificate and that does not feel a happy situation either.

In addition, some organisations such as not for profit social enterprises may not afford to pay students just by very nature of the sector.

While we continue to refine our understanding of the world of unpaid internships, there is a simple framework that students could use to decide whether to go for an unpaid internship.  Before you sign up for what calls itself an unpaid internship, ask yourself these questions.

  1. Is it a volunteering program?
  2. Are you sure that the employer is not going to make a profit out of the end product that you contribute to?
  3. Does it add to your skill set (Not in a vague – it-might-help-you-to-communicate-more-efficiently way, but have they actually put down on the paper something concrete about the any kind of training or mentorship that might come useful in your future)
  4. Is there any chance of the internship being credited (so that you can  afford to drop a course and save some money, if the rules set by your university work that way)
  5. Is the only other alternative to this unpaid internship is another unpaid internship or a training or a fake certificate?

If you have a yes as an answer to one or more of this questions, this opportunity may still make sense. But if you have answered everything with a No and still wish to go ahead, hey how are things in Uncle Tom’s cabin?

What do you think of unpaid internships? Share your views in the comments and help us build a community level consensus on the subject.

* Quoted from Stephan Colbert

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4 thoughts on “Internship – To be paid or not to be paid?

  • May 20, 2012 at 7:32 PM

    Paid internships are the obviously the best, because they are a HUGE motivator for the interns to be responsible, credible and work with the maximum efficiency.

    I’m not against unpaid internships, if it is offered by an NGO. However, if it is an enterprise with a profit motive, then it would be fair and just only if the interns are rewarded with stipends.

    Unpaid internships offered by “organizations for profit” is contributing to an unhealthy trend. Few years from now, full time employees will be fired and interns will be hired to minimize the costs and maximize the profits. And worse, the predicament made by Internshala could come true.

    I only pray and hope that effective laws are formulated by the concerned authorities to check this situation and regulate the internships in the country.

  • July 26, 2012 at 1:39 PM

    Yes, you’ve presented a very well balanced debate …with very convincing arguments ..that bring forth both the side of the coin,..and true ,the trickier nature of the situation, of being an intern, ..cannot let one take a stand..but I still think that some sort of stipend should surely be paid…
    After all, once being accepted by the organization, the intern is making an effort to be at your organisation and making some contribution (however minor..) and moreover one cannot overlook the fact that the time, travel and other expenses of the intern are also involved. A reasonable stipend will make them work with more zest and enthusiasm and make their effort worthwhile !!!

  • May 30, 2013 at 2:51 PM

    Paid internships are high motivators for students but public sector companies do not pay stipend to interns then too students apply there.

  • June 12, 2020 at 11:07 AM

    When companies pay stipend students are accountable for the work assigned to them. They are motivated.


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