07/17/2013 03:32 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

A Contrarian View of the Demise of the Unpaid Internship

I guess I'm the only one in the nation to think this way, but I'm a little sorry to see the unpaid internship becoming endangered, if not extinct. It's not because I'm an ogre who believes in exploiting the young, but rather because I lament the vaporizing of opportunities which, for so many students over so many years, have been so incredibly valuable. Sure, paid internships are better for students than unpaid internships. And sure, it's just unfair to call a part time job an internship to avoid paying people. But one cannot get blood out of a turnip. Making it impossible, from a practical standpoint, to offer an unpaid internship takes a lot of opportunities -- great experiences where the student gets so much more experience and exposure than he or she could ever hope to buy -- off the table. When that happens, the losses are borne mostly by the students. The simple fact of the matter is that students need internships (and I mean real internships, not unpaid jobs masquerading as internships) more than companies need interns.

I run a university where the requirements are shaped, to a large extent, by what business tell us our students need to know to be employable and promotable. We ask the kinds of companies where our graduates want to work what we need to be doing so that our graduates stand out. When we can, we incorporate this feedback into our curriculum. One the results is that the vast majority of our students being required to do an internship. We think -- and our job placement statistics verify this thought -- that it helps prepare them for the workplace. Most get paid. For companies which can afford to do it, paying interns seems like good insurance against "no good deed goes unpunished." As an interesting aside, many of our interns make more than minimum wage. I'm also keenly aware that "kids gotta eat..." during any given semester, I have student or two on a dishwashing, pool skimming, or gutter cleaning scholarship.

But I worked an unpaid internship in college... burned through savings to pay for lunch and gas. And I've supervised my fair share of unpaid interns in the past. From both of these perspectives, I think we're doing our college students a disservice by killing off the unpaid internship.

It might be worth noting that we define "internship" a bit differently than do some others. We've pages of pages of explanation, and a fairly lengthy agreement. Making coffee, filing, sweeping the warehouse floor, and answering phones are all legitimate professions and valuable contributions. But they don't cut it for us as an internship. There needs to be honest to goodness learning about the functioning of a business leading to genuine development of leadership, managerial, administrative, analytical, or other relevant skills for us to approve it as an internship. We've got kids working various places who are filing, answering phones, etc., but we call these "part time jobs," not "internships." And no reasonable person disputes that folks ought to be paid for part time jobs, irrespective of what they're called.

There exist, however, a goodly number of firms -- small businesses, not-for-profits, others -- which can offer an intern all sorts of wonderful things, but not money. And it's not because they don't want to; rather, it's because they cannot. There's a famous sign from the 1920's Great Depression which reads "Jobless Men Keep Going. We Can't Take Care of Our Own." For a lot of small businesses, this is still the case. What can one learn at the soup kitchen, the mom & pop restaurant, the single person accounting or law firm? All sorts of things that are hard to replicate in the classroom. With small business being a huge component of the global economy and the catalyst of social change (as just one example, one should not, for example, discount the impact of Avon on empowering women throughout the world... money changes everything) and small charities providing services which make huge differences in the life of many, small firms are a big part of life. Offering a wildly different culture than behemoth industries, for many, small is indeed beautiful. Removing from the pool of potential internship sites those employers who just cannot take on another paid employee right now -- and this describes an awful lot of small businesses and small civic organizations -- does a disservice to students for whom this sort of career path is a good fit.

I worked an unpaid internship. Oh, but that I actually knew at 20 years old what I thought I knew at 20 years old. Did the company get some value for my time? Maybe. They spent a good deal of time running me through an orientation of their company, then tossed me on a couple of projects they wanted done but really didn't have budget to do. I think I did a decent job on them. But, really, if it had been all that important, they have paid a grown up to do them. For many firms, internships are more about giving something back to the community than they are about getting important work done. They give a college student a taste of work life, a peek at a particular industry, a better understanding of a particular company. They take resources, time, and talent to teach, guide, and mentor someone who admittedly brings to the table little experience and an incomplete education. With the increasing challenges of providing good wages and good benefits to experienced employees who consistently provide value, paying unknown interns, whose primary goal is not adding value for the employer but increasing their own knowledge and worth, can be a tough proposition. And when I went out at 21 looking for a job without a lot of experience, this internship went on my resume and my supervisor went on my references. When I landed that first job, I had the luxury of having already made some of my mistakes on my internship, and learning from them when the stakes were relatively low. At least in my case, I learned a lot; the company I worked for got something done they just didn't have the budget to do; gas and lunch was a bit of a financial struggle in the face of the lack of wages, but I lived; and we all went away satisfied, feeling like we had gotten a fair deal. We hear similar accounts from our graduates. Removing from the pool of potential internship sites those employers who are willing to invest in our future, but aren't willing to pay a student to learn about their business or industry, also does a disservice to students.

I have, over the years, supervised an occasional unpaid internship. I'd have liked to have paid the students, really I would have. But it really was a case of "Jobless Men Keep Going. We Can't Take Care of Our Own." But what I did do was allow them access to management talent they could have never gotten otherwise. It struck me that my end of the bargain was to teach these young men and young women the things I should have been taught at their age, before I got my first "real job". It seemed to me like, in return for whatever it was they were doing for me, they should go back to school with an understanding of business they just wouldn't get from their books. I kept my end of the bargain. Many said thanks. Some years later. Some with specific instances of how their experience had positively impacted their careers.

Doubtless there are areas of abuse which need to be remedied. But, eliminating the unpaid internship hurts one group disproportionately: the students who need these experiences.