Do Unpaid Internships Send The Wrong Message?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about unpaid internships, especially in journalism–what with Atlantic Media deciding to pay all its interns retroactively and all. The debate goes back and forth: Even college students need to eat! But if they weren’t working for free, it wouldn’t be a real learning experience! Or something.

But Ross Perlin, who’s writing a book about the “internship phenomenon,” says that unpaid internship programs might send the wrong message to the outside world.

Besides sending the message “We are an exploitative, elitist company” (which can be argued into oblivion), companies who use interns for vital work can also end up looking penny-wise and pound foolish.

“When inexperienced, short-term employees are asked to perform operationally vital work, the result can be more cost than benefit,” Perlin writes. “Consider the widespread use of interns to manage web content and social media initiatives. It may seem inspired given the generational fit, but it delays the hour when your full-timers have to learn the new tools of their trade, and puts people who know and care least about your brand on the front lines of communicating it.”

Certainly as a young whippersnapper intern in two newsrooms, we can confirm that the glee that some subjects had when saying “Oh, you want to interview me?” quickly faded as soon as the magic word “intern” came out. Which isn’t to say that interns can’t or shouldn’t do real work, but that companies should take care to prove that they’re not just foisting dirty-but-necessary jobs onto the college kids. One way of bolstering that image would be to pay the interns.

What a revolutionary thought.