Pay up or shut up: It’s time to end unpaid internships

—Aside from being unethical, not compensating people for their work perpetuates inequality by taking opportunities away from those who can’t afford to work for free, says Swerve’s Andrew Wagar—

If you are a soon-to-be marketing graduate, you have likely found job postings by marketing agencies for jobs like intern, trainee, graduate consultant, and leadership development program. Beware! These jobs sometimes come with a catch.

You apply, get interviewed, go through the process only to learn they are unpaid internships, positioned as “opportunities” to help grads “get a foot in the door.” In truth they are nothing more than greedy agency owners taking advantage of young grads struggling to get a start.

Here is some free career advice: If you are offered an unpaid internship, don’t take it. You can stop reading here if you want. If you are curious why, read on.

You have worked hard to obtain your degree, have bills to pay, debts to clear, and a life to lead.

Do not fall for the trap of unpaid work. People who do not pay for services do not value them—and they will not value you. If they can’t afford to pay you now, they won’t be able to afford you when the internship is over, and you will have wasted some valuable earning time.

I learned this the hard way. When I graduated, I did a two-month, full-time (50 to 60 hours per week) internship at a major Toronto ad agency. I lived in Oakville, having just graduated from the Sheridan College Advertising program, and commuted each day. I went through several interviews for the job. There were competing candidates. Some were my classmates. I wanted it. I viewed it as my start.

I landed the job working with their new business team, doing research, writing, and proofreading for an RFP that resulted in the agency landing a pretty big, client. I was involved with every part of the project, including the pitch. When they won, there was a celebration. Soon after, I asked for a job that paid. I was told to “hang on” and that a position would open soon.

I went back to my paying job at a warehouse instead, and never thought about applying to that agency ever again.

Postsecondary institutions that often tout—and many require—unpaid internships as part of their diploma requirements, need to recognize the hidden dangers of those internships.

They act as a barrier for recent marketing graduates. They perpetuate inequality and limit opportunities for young people from low-income backgrounds, who typically are the most desperate to get started on a meaningful career.

Unpaid internships are also discriminatory, as they favour those who can afford to work for free—creating a class of people who have more opportunities to network, gain experience, and eventually secure paid jobs over those who need to earn their living.

Moreover, unpaid internships are often exploitative. Some companies use unpaid interns to fill positions that would otherwise be paid, effectively taking jobs away from people who need them. This practice is illegal and unethical, and we, as an industry and a society, should not tolerate it. If a company cannot afford to pay its employees, it should not be in business.

Everyone deserves to be paid for their work, and grads need to demand payment when taking a job. Do not believe false promises of “training,” “development,” “putting in the time,” and other deceptive phrases that agency owners use to trick graduates into working for free.

Ask about the pay upfront. If it is unpaid, walk away, warn your peers, and spread the word. So long as agencies believe they can convince recent graduates to provide services at no financial cost to the agency, they will continue to offer these types of roles.

If you are a recent or soon-to-be grad and you find yourself faced with either taking an unpaid internship versus non-career paid work, here are some questions to consider:

  1. What are your immediate and long-term goals? Waiting for an opportunity that works best for you is always better in the long run than taking the first one that presents itself.
  2. Think about your financial situation. An unpaid internship will not improve it.
  3. Are you looking for recognition, appreciation and growth? Unpaid interns rarely receive any of that, as they are doing everything for free. With no incentive to recognize contributions, most agencies will let a top-performing intern leave and replace them with another, rather than keep them at a salary.
  4. Are you afraid to negotiate? Don’t be. In sales, the first offer is never the best offer. If you want the job, and the employer wants you, push for compensation. If they need the position filled and want you on their team, negotiating may get you the salary you seek. And if not, you have nothing to lose.

Starting a career is an equal mix of excitement, anxiousness and eagerness. It is a challenging time that often begins fast and easy for some, harder and slower for others. Don’t get discouraged if you are in the latter group. With hard work, perseverance, and patience, the right opportunity at the right salary will present itself. Unpaid internships rarely work out. Respect that you bring value and demand to be compensated for it.

Andrew Wagar is the owner, and CEO of Swerve, a full-service digital marketing, influencer marketing, PR, events and social marketing agency that pays its employees.