To Pay or Not to Pay: An Internship’s Biggest Question

It’s one of the integral parts of the college experience. It is the conundrum all students fall into when they begin to seek their place in the business world: the internship. Every student faces the challenge of balancing school, work, and simply life in general during their Junior and Senior years. However, internships are more than just a chance to get a glimpse into multiple industries and careers, it is also a controversial subject facing many companies. That controversy lies within the payment of service and whether the intern should be paid with money or just experience.

Today’s college student faces a mountain of challenges followed by a mountain of potential opportunity. However, because our modern industries tie to technology, budget and youth culture’s desire to constantly seek new experiences, the old view on internships is slowly dying. What do I mean by this? Well, in the past internships and apprentices were often promised a job at the end of contracted term. This meant all of the unpaid experience was in preparation for a full-time hire. Fast forward to today where students have to decide to choose a job that provides a living or career experience that can open doors but leaves bills unpaid. It is quite frustrating frankly. I have personally experienced, being a recent college graduate, many highly qualified and driven individuals turning away from internships simply because they need to have a steady income.

What does that mean for those who do choose unpaid internships? It could mean a variety of things. Students who can afford an unpaid experience may have more immediate opportunities and a lengthier resume, but may, in fact, not be the best candidate for the position. Compensating an intern with some form of monetary payment will bring all potential candidates and not just the ones who can afford it.

It’s funny to think that even though there is law for minimum wage, there is still vagueness to the law behind unpaid internships.

Below are some of the qualifications businesses must meet in order to not financially compensating an intern.

  • The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
  • The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Well, what about if you do or want to pay your interns? What are the benefits and drawbacks?


  • All types of candidates can apply
  • Higher and more powerful energy brought into workplace
  • Feeling of experience being worthwhile
  • Payments can vary (stocks, company product, money)
  • Better reputation of company
  • Can use their skills for profit and not just onlookers


  • Financial commitment and risk
  • Potentially hiring on of fewer interns
  • Need for compensable work
  • Feeling of displacement from current employees
  • Potential for low return on investment

Internship compensation is a problem that faces many companies and college students and graduates. However because every industry and business varies, it is important to keep in mind that compensation can vary and sometimes may not be necessary. Although remember that if your interns provide you with profitable work, it is only fair to give something back in return that is not just experience and credit. We all know the age-old phrase “time is money”, but also remember “Good work is hard to find”.

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  • Theresa says:

    Excellent blog post, Bethany. I often wonder if companies take into consideration your point and legal qualification “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded”. I know there are many legit internships out there, but I also know that many companies who can’t afford to hire someone simply turn an unpaid intern as a way to get away from paying someone to do work that benefits the company in an immediate way. I also think many companies lose out on the value of what having a paid intern can do for them. In the same respect that companies don’t give away all their “secret sauce”, I know for a fact that interns do the same thing. They save their best ideas for those willing to pay for them.

  • Thanks for this article- well done & food for thought. It’s difficult to navigate these waters-especially if you have a very small operation.

  • Bert Ornelas says:

    Slavery is dead. (I hope) Interns should be paid commensurate with their duties and responsibilities! Companies would bring back slavery to save a buck.