Thoughts on unpaid internships

On Friday, I saw a job advert from a local web design agency that made me quite annoyed.

Job advert for a 3 month unpaid internship

This post was for a 3 month unpaid internship and a few points really stood out from the job description including the use of the word proficient in this requirement:

‘You’ll need to be proficient in turning Photoshop design files into functioning web pages using HTML/CSS and be aware of cross browser compatibility.’

That, to me, sounds like a key requirement for a junior front-end developer not an unpaid intern. If a candidate is proficient in those particular skills then they should be good enough to make a reasonable contribution, that is to say they should be able to make the agency money by working on billable jobs.

Something else stood out too:

‘We’re offering this as an unpaid internship, but travel expenses may be considered depending on your circumstances.’

So for this employer, paying expenses for their interns isn’t even a given.

After seeing this advert, I tweeted about it, using, the adjective bullshit and received this response from the agency owner.

‘Everybody that has worked with us on an internship basis has gone on to get work – either here or elsewhere.’

The fact that all their interns have gone onto get jobs doesn’t surprise me one bit; If the job description is anything to go by, this agency is hiring people who have the necessary skills to get a paid job at an agency without the need for a 3 month internship.

Internships/placements do have their positives

No, I’m not opposed to internships per se; I’ve worked at many agencies that take on recent graduates and/or current students for 1-2 weeks and get them to work on billable work. These students gain valuable experience that they wouldn’t get otherwise and it does make them more employable.

In these cases yes, the agencies are exploiting their position a little but the students do learn a hell of a lot in those 1-2 weeks. However, that’s just 1-2 weeks and although it’s not easy to get by unpaid for a fortnight it is damn near impossible to work a full-time job for three months without getting paid and, frankly, I don’t think that’s fair.

So why do employers offer internships?

As far as I can tell companies take on unpaid interns for two reasons:

  1. Because they have an overflow of work and they can’t afford for a freelancer or to hire an employee to do it
  2. Because they have an overflow of work and they don’t want to pay a freelancer or to hire an employee as that would decrease their own pay packet

If you have an so much work on that you need an extra pair of hands to do the work but can’t afford to pay them then you’re doing it wrong; you need to up your prices and if you can afford to pay an intern but don’t want to then honestly what does that say about you as a person?

So what’s the solution?

These unpaid internships are pretty much standard in other industries like fashion, PR and film/television especially in that there London, but I’d hate to see them become a standard in the digital industry. After all, despite the rest of the economy digital is still growing and crying out for more skilled employees.

Some people also responded to my tweet to say they’d previously been an unpaid intern and they’d done quite well out of it and while I don’t doubt that the intern does get some good experience, I simply think they should be paid if they are contributing to the employer’s salary. My solution would be for these employers to pay their interns a small wage – doesn’t have to be megabucks – just something that helps them pay their bills and makes them feel like a professional. Not paying anything at all seems just mean spirited.

Whilst writing this article, I discovered a job advert that I did like. It was from a design agency based in South Wales, Mark Boulton Design. The job in question is for a Web Design Apprentice and it looks very much like a traditional apprenticeship scheme whereby enthusiasm and a relevant A-level (or equivalent) are the only qualifications for this paid role which promises to teach a novice a lot about the industry. I wish more agencies would take this approach.

Your thoughts

What do you make of unpaid internships? Are they an unnecessary evil or a poor way to treat young people? I’d particularly like to hear from employers who take on interns in this way and why they feel it’s a good idea or perhaps some former interns and their experiences.

5 responses to “Thoughts on unpaid internships”

  1. Great post! Couldn’t agree more with your analysis of the internship description. It says a lot about that companies culture and begs the question – do you really want to work for a company that treats their people like that? That ‘may’ treat you well..

    There’s an article in Macleans Magazine on unpaid internships that you might be interested in . Having been an intern at one point, I wrote a post on our blog sharing ideas on how to keep interns engaged and why it’s important.

    Hope the articles are of interest. Cheers.

  2. Sounds like a potentially exploitative situation. I’m admittedly not all that well informed on the legality of internships but I did dig up some interesting guidelines on the Skillset website (via

    My understanding is that work experience and student internships can be unpaid if they form a structured part of a recognised course whilst general internships (for non-students) should be subject to the National Minimum Wage.

    I agree that it would be a great shame if it became the industry standard unless there is some real, measurable benefit – not to mention protection – for the intern.

    My own experience as an unpaid intern in “that there London” was only made financially possible by working nightshifts in a local supermarket. It was slightly exploitative and whilst the carrot was constantly dangled, no doors were opened to me. I learned some valuable life lessons though – mostly about what not to do!

  3. Well to be fair, it’s really hard to start your career in today’s day and age. So most grads/junior devs are grateful for unpaid work as it’s good experience.

    Take me for example, I’m an 18 year old developer who’s just finished a months voluntary position at a Web Agency for some experience. And now, I’ve landed my self a job with a different employer. That’s two different employers on my CV within a months time period. That makes me stand out from the junior/grad crowd as most juniors have no professional experience.

    So more and more devs wanting to kick start their career are offering voluntary work, just for the experience. This is why employers are getting more greedy and more cocky. They’re under the impression that they’re doing the devs a favour (instead of the other way round). And in some (rare) cases, they are.

  4. Hi Nav – thanks for your comment and personal insight.

    I’m not 100% opposed to unpaid internships; I think they have their palce provided, that is, they don’t go on too long.

    In the above example, the internship advertised was for 3 months which I personally think is bordering upon exploitative. Somewhere between 1 -4 weeks, in my opinion, is acceptable. Although I do feel a full month is pushing it.

    I’d be interested to hear whether the skills you learnt on that month-long internship directly contributed to you getting your full-time job or whether you feel that having the experience on your CV was the main contributing factor to making you more employable?

  5. I don’t object to unpaid internships as long as (and you’ve touched the subject) the internship isn’t require to be “proficient” or “experienced” in a certain area. The whole reason they would even consider the internship is because they’re not proficient or experienced, but would like to be. An unpaid internship is great for confidence, experience and a CV bumper, because design jobs are so hard to come by and inexperienced applicants often get pushed aside for the more experienced designers. I do object to the mentioned job advert where the intern needed to be skilled in HTML/CSS/etc. If I was the agency I would ask that they have a basic understanding and passion to learn the technologies, because I know that there was a starting point and that they were eager to learn, not just a “claim to fame”.