Your Business

Are Unpaid Interns Exploited by Employers?

Internships are a pragmatic way for young workers to get inside a good company and prove their worth.

Q: My son, a recent college graduate, has been working for six months as an unpaid intern (well, he does get a small stipend) for a small, respected company in the professional field he majored in. I think they're taking advantage of him, using him and other interns as free labor. He disagrees, saying that he knows several successful young employees there who also started out as interns. Do you think this intern thing is ethical?

Yes, depending on how it's done. The intern's tasks should be challenging and commensurate with his or her education. And the intern is entitled to expect strong mentoring and coaching from interested superiors.

In this very difficult job market, internships -- whether they pay a small stipend or nothing at all -- are a pragmatic way for ambitious young workers to get inside a good company and prove their worth. Many self-confident young grads are more than willing to take that chance, especially if they know other interns who got permanent job offers.

Companies benefit, too -- and not just from the salary savings. They are, in essence, using internships as auditions for entry-level jobs. It's a more reliable way of hiring than trying to judge an unproven applicant from a resume and interview, with the legal risks of having to lay off the new hire after an unsatisfactory probationary period. With an intern, if it doesn't "work out," the internship can be terminated with face-saving on both sides.

Having said that, I have heard of well-qualified college students and young grads being hired as interns and then given menial tasks and no opportunities for professional growth. This is exploitative, especially if the interns were promised something better. And if interns serve for a year or more without some indication that a job offer is likely, they should raise the issue with superiors. It might be time to move on. Ideally, the internship enhanced their job skills and resume.

Send your own money-and-ethics question to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger.

Most Popular

Where's My Stimulus Check? Use the IRS's "Get My Payment" Portal to Get an Answer
Coronavirus and Your Money

Where's My Stimulus Check? Use the IRS's "Get My Payment" Portal to Get an Answer

The IRS updated its popular online tool so that you can track the status of your second stimulus check.
January 9, 2021
How a Third Stimulus Check Could Differ From Your First and Second Payments
Coronavirus and Your Money

How a Third Stimulus Check Could Differ From Your First and Second Payments

There's going to be a big push for a third round of stimulus payments. But the amount and eligibility rules for your third stimulus check could be dif…
January 12, 2021
Biden Calls for $1,400 Payments as Part of $1.9 Trillion Relief Package
Coronavirus and Your Money

Biden Calls for $1,400 Payments as Part of $1.9 Trillion Relief Package

Under Biden's plan for a third stimulus check, the $600 second-round stimulus checks would be increased to $2,000.
January 14, 2021

Recommended

Biden Proposes $15 Minimum Wage
Politics

Biden Proposes $15 Minimum Wage

As part of his $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, President-elect Biden proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage.
January 15, 2021
Starting Your Own Law Practice? Here’s How to Fail
careers

Starting Your Own Law Practice? Here’s How to Fail

Take it from Elizabeth Miller, co-author of “From Lawyer to Law Firm, How to Manage a Successful Law Business,” this is what you should NOT do when se…
December 31, 2020
Can Your Boss Force You to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?
Coronavirus and Your Money

Can Your Boss Force You to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Two employment attorneys weigh in with their legal viewpoints for employers and their workers. As a bonus, we touch base with a professor of psycholog…
December 29, 2020
Rapper Moves From Music to Merchandise
Making Your Money Last

Rapper Moves From Music to Merchandise

This rapper has pivoted from putting on live shows to selling T-shirts and tote bags.
December 24, 2020