Unpaid vs paid internships

Hello everyone,

some weeks ago I stumbled upon an interesting and in my opinion highly relevent article regarding internships and if it is ethically kosher to offer them unpaid.
Now that I have started posting here on Core again, I thought I share it and maybe kick of a discussion regarding this, especially with the summer coming up where lots of young students will engage in internship situations.

I know, it has been discussed before but with this article and the ever changing economic climate, I believe that it is worth another look.

It would be interesting to hear from both seasoned employers and design leads as well as students and young designers.


Also, I can recommend the comment section with some further insight from the Biz.

One of my favorite comments was:
“Our industry has no lack of work, but a real lack of cashflow. Pulling the wool over desperate kids isn’t the solution. Real companies pay interns. Or offer such a phenomenal educational service, that it’s clear the intern got a return on their investment.”

All interns (student staying for longer than 3 months) should be paid. period.


  • not all students have the financial possibilities to afford a living for several months; often in a foreign country; out of their or their parents pockets.
  • interns are supposed to contribute to real projects (that’s how they learn the most at least) and by doing so they are providing their “skills” into the project the design company is profiting from.
  • self-esteem of the intern, feeling and experiencing being a real team member and getting rewarded for his “work” and also be able to go out for a beer with the team after work.

all of this of course should apply when:

  • a design firm does not have 5+ interns just to have random tasks to be done and interns are seen as free paper shifters.
    (just don’t apply there if it is known that you will be doing this all day: http://vimeo.com/37796909 :slight_smile:
  • a design agency selects the interns cautiously according their skills/interests fitting the “needs” of the agency ensuring
    the intern can “contribute” to projects.

Unpaid internships are unfair and nurturing the:
“he is not costing us anything anyway, let him do insert random task here. oh that was wrong?
then let him do insert random task #2 here”.

Instead it should be:
“he is costing us money, let him work on a project!”

just my 2c

Oh, don’t go there girl.

In the US there are laws governing this. I forget all the requirements for an unpaid internship to be legal, but I remember the most important being, generally, that the intern is getting more out of the relationship than the company. So any tasks such as filing papers would make the relationship illegal, since the intern isn’t really learning anything.

Coincidentally, this morning on NPR there was a story about how Germany has the lowest youth unemployment, thanks largely to a well established apprenticeship program. It’s like going to a trade school, but you work with a real company as well as the “school’s” shop/classroom, and you get paid throughout the training. Only about a third of your potential starting salary, but at least it’s something considering this is set up explicitly to train you.

Personally, I think having unpaid internships is a pretty crappy thing for a company. Shadowing programs, sure, but the minute they’re doing work for real projects pay them. (background - designer working at a small consultancy, 6.5 years out of school)

As an intern/co-op student at the moment, I’m using paid internships to pay my way through university so I definitely think interns should be paid, but I’m also curious to see some opinions on how much they should be paid.

I’m working at a local hospital right now through my school’s co-op program. I picked a job that I thought would be fun, no wage posted but it is fairly specialized so I assumed there would be some reasonable negotiation (you need to have programming, 3D modelling and mechanical/biomedical engineering knowledge and experience and I spent a fair bit of time catching up on what I didn’t know before the work term started). However, once I started they told me I would be getting $12 an hour, no negotiations (for reference I earned $16 an hour at an acoustic engineering position, and $12 an hour in industrial design coming in with no prior experience in either field, and have a 9.5/10 GPa in mechanical engineering), and there was no way to back out without losing a ton of scholarship money for taking a term off (co-op counts as being full time in school) and getting kicked out of the co-op program.
The biggest issue is that I spend my time in a pseudo/management position, teaching and managing full time employees to program and use the software and have very little supervision (maybe a 5 min check-in every 2 weeks). I do appreciate the experience, but I feel like in specialized professions such as this if I’m earning close to minimum wage ($10.25 here in Ontario, Canada) and not being placed in a position where I can grow my skills, they are taking advantage of cheap student work.

I feel like I’m whining a bit but I wanted to give some context to my question. All my other experiences have been great, and I would have no problem earning less in a position that furthers my education (it’s all relative of course).

I believe in the US the only way an internship can be unpaid is if the student is getting school credit. Some schools I believe prohibit getting paid for an internship if the student is getting credit which seems strange to me since in that case I believe the student may have to actually pay for the credits.

Regardless of the technicalities, my personal view is that an unpaid internship is wrong. A person should be compensated for their work. While an intern is not going to perform at the level of quality of a designer and will need more guidance, they still contribute. If an intern is not good enough to contribute value, then they should not be in that internship. There are plenty of great students who can add value that deserve that internship! 15 years ago I was interning in a model shop as a total grunt for $7.50 / hour, today I think $10 / hour would be the minimum for an internship. $15-20 can be expected.

I did both a paid and unpaid internship. The paid one was much better, because I had to perform to a strict budget and it gave me a real feeling of constraints. When you’re unpaid, you sometimes wonder whether you’re doing real work at all.

Try to find a paid internship. When you’re going to be at interviews for paid positions, you really have to convince people how well you can perform to a budget or an annual salary. When you were not paid at all, how can you prove it?

I should make clear that this is a general discussion for students still enrolled and not specific to me.

Here is my position which I am going to more or less copy and paste from what I wrote in the comment section of the aformentioned article.

Having interned in both small boutique design studios (Namesake designer + Assistent) and larger Consultancy firms, I believe that the context of who and where the internship is offered, should be considered.
Design is a tough business and if I am being hired for an internship position in a very small but famous firm, I can easily understand that it is just not realistic to expect a full paycheck when I see my boss hanging on by the thread.

That being said, I never worked for nothing. A metro card and lunch was the usual deal, both in London and New York.
However, when interning with a large firm, I believe that not paying the intern at least a decent amount to somewhat also cover living expenses, is just not fair if the firm is doing well financially.

I think this is a great thread for all current students; having just gone though interning / co-ops this was a hot topic for all my classmates.

I can easily understand that it is just not realistic to expect a full paycheck when I see my boss hanging on by the thread.

@Bepster - This is more of a general question, not implying your thinking is wrong / correct. Is it acceptable for the designers / interns to have their pay fluctuate based on the companies performance or should they stick to the original agreement? Please let me know if I’m misinterpreting what your saying.


I believe if there was an agreement in place before the internship started, then of course this agreement should be honored throughout the arranged period.

What I merely tried to say was that I believe that we got a little bit an Apple and Orange situation here.
A design studio with 2-3 employees is as much a design firm as a consultancy with hundreds. Both dabble in the field of design. Both have interns. But that is where I see the similarities end.

While a big firm has a program in place and sizable clashflow, the small studio is basically hanging on from project to project. This does not say anything about the work being done at ether but rather the differences between say a studio working with furniture and a consultancy working with consumer electronics.
In that scenario I can see a small studio saying that they simply cannot afford to pay their interns.
This does not mean, in my opinion, that an internship there should be dismissed on principle. A lot can be learned in a small place and a pay check is not always the most important part.

What is important here however, is that in case of minimal re-embursment, say transportation and lunch, the employer and the intern find ways to make it a useful experience for the intern. Sometimes just the connection, the portfolio pieces and the experience are by far more valuable than a couple of bucks here and there.

At least this is my experience.

Interestingly, I find myself in this position now of deciding whether to take an unpaid or not.

Bepster, it’s a small studio; independent designer. I do understand your point, that a smaller studio (versus a large consultancy that gets tons of work) might not be able to afford an intern; in fact, they are doing us a favor by taking us in; I feel. But at the same time, I have bills to pay as a graduate and like most new grads in any field, we end up having to take retail or hospitality jobs until our first big break comes along (and some have had to move back in with our parents and put our loans in deferment). Ugh, these are some tough times. I hope things get better soon. Even retail jobs are hard to come by and this is coming from someone with years of retail experience! I guess I am too overqualified for Target?! Just the other day, I received a rejection letter from Trader Joe’s! I guess that means I will be shopping at Whole Foods from now on. :laughing:

Even though I will learn a great deal and it will look great to employers on my resume, I will have to take a night job part-time and probably work until the wee hours and sleep 5 or 6 hours and be back at the internship all over again. It’s for 3 months, so I will just bite the bullet and probably do it. Nothing comes easy to us newbies, does it? Am I the only grad who feels school hasn’t ended? I am still pulling all-nighters!

I’m currently on a job hunt for entry level in NYC, but entry, junior level design positions are scarce. However unpaid internships are abundant.

I’ve had 2 previous internships that were well paid, and I’m thankful, but it seems like in a big city like NYC, internships are taking place of entry level positions. I don’t have insight on the past history of NYC jobs so I can’t really say. Maybe someone else can shed some light on this.

Unless it’s a company that will give me valuable experience, I don’t see a point of applying to unpaid internships.

The problem in Germany is that they don’t pay that much, neither in Austria. The average is about 500 / 600e per month, and in places like Munich or Hamburg, that’s just covering the accommodation. I was lucky enough to end up in a consultancy were they paid enough to cover all the expenses, but not enough to fully enjoy life. I think an internship in a certain city should cover the living costs and some extra cash to do stuff like having some beers, going to museums or doing some sports.