Corporate Eye

Pay to Play–Intern Style


Again, I’m a little bit shocked.  First I found out that aspiring government employees pay to have other people write their KSAs, and no one seems to notice.  Now I’ve learned that prospective/recent college grads (or their parents) are paying to obtain desirable internships.

According to a story in the New York Times, there’s a mini-industry growing up around the unpaid internship market.  The options available to aspiring interns range from matching services to auctions (yes, really), but the big boat in this regatta will take the student from resume to interview to offer to apartment, with tourist amenities thrown in.  All for under $10,000!

Companies say they regard this as a useful service, providing them with better interns while reducing the effort required to acquire them.  Parents say they regard it as a worthwhile investment.  And one assumes that the interns consider it a splendid opportunity–and/or a  way to get something of value without a lot of effort.

Is this okay?  On the one hand, market opportunities are always going to be exploited by somebody, and apparently the demand for internships has been sky-rocketing.  In terms of the fairness question–arguably, only better-off students can afford to spend their summers accruing unpaid experience instead of flipping burgers to fund the next semester anyway.  So perhaps it doesn’t make any real difference if the well-funded compete amongst themselves?

But on the other hand . . . students who can afford to pay for play in the internship market probably already have a lot more connections than their less-fortunate peers.  Should they also get the resume boost of a high-value internship–without an asterisk that says “placed by a paid broker”?

Another thought:  The student who gets ushered into an internship (and doesn’t even need to find an apartment or figure out the city map) may not be getting the full benefit of this step toward professional and personal maturity.

To get the placement side of the story, visit this website for a leading provider.  Then, if your company utilizes interns, you might consider these questions:

  • What is the point of the intern program? Free workers, potential employees, community service, or . . . . ?
  • Is the intern program clearly and effectively presented on the corporate website?
  • Do you know when intern candidates are being “packaged”? Does it matter?
  • Would it be more cost-effective for your company to work with an intern broker? Would that be consistent with your program goals?

In truth, I’m not sure whether this is a big deal or I’m just being cranky.  The program I looked at seemed to promise something like summer camp (take your pick–New York, L.A., Las Vegas, Barcelona, Sidney, Shanghai!) with a bonus of “real world” credit for doing unspecified tasks involved with marketing, fashion, television, finance, etc.

So maybe I just want to be an intern!  Or maybe I just want to think bright, hard-working, un-rich young people have an equal chance to do unpaid work in exchange for undiluted experience.

(Thanks to Daniel/borman818 for the “money shot”!)

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Cynthia Giles has followed a serpentine career path from academia to publishing to marketing and design to information technology and corporate communications. There’s plenty of detail about this journey at, but briefly--the common theme has been ideas, and how to present them effectively. Along the way, she became an accidental expert on data warehousing and business intelligence, and for the past ten years she has combined corporate contracting with an independent consulting practice that focuses on marketing strategy for smaller businesses and non-profits. Having spent quite a bit of time looking for work, and anywhere from two weeks to two years inside a wide variety of American companies—she has given much thought to what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to creating a great employment fit.