Woes of the ‘lapdog intern’ and other tales of unpaid labor

June 13, 2011, 2:30 PM UTC

Nabbing the perfect job seems impossible without the help of an internship these days. But is it worth taking one that’s unpaid? Our readers share their experiences.

FORTUNE — Students across the country have placed their caps and gowns aside and have either hit the pavement to find work or have begun their first full-time jobs. Internships have become a staple of the college student and recent graduate’s professional life, providing a path to more permanent employment. But is it worth taking one that doesn’t pay? According to a recent student survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, paid interns spend a larger portion of their time on professional (versus clerical) tasks than their unpaid counterparts, suggesting that it might be best to hold out for salaried work if you can. Three readers share their thoughts and experiences.

Crawling out of a recession

I came out of school in June 2008 and earned a graduate certificate in June 2009. At that point, the recession had just hit so there weren’t a lot of jobs out there.

I was sending out tons of resumes and wasn’t getting any feedback or callbacks. That was extremely frustrating, especially because at that point I had finished two post-secondary programs and wasn’t getting anywhere.

Just as a function of the times, there were a lot of other people out there who needed experience. They got caught in that cycle where nobody wanted to hire them without experience but they couldn’t get experience without a job. The only places that were hiring were startups that didn’t have a lot of money. I got a few offers from these kinds of places and made a judgment call based on which company I thought had the best chance of growing, which was RemoteStylist.com.

I loved working as an intern and wanted to stay working for RemoteStylist. But, when I realized it wasn’t going to turn into a job that paid enough for me to live on, I had to explore other options. At the same time, I didn’t leave with negative feelings about the experience. It was all very positive and I just felt really great about having the opportunity to do what I did. My family had been supporting me while I worked as an unpaid intern, but that wasn’t going to last forever, so I knew I needed to move on to a paid position.

I was lucky enough that about the time I was considering leaving, an old professor of mine came across an opportunity with a market research company and sent it my way. During the interview, they were extremely impressed by my internship. Particularly since it was a startup, I was able to take on a lot of responsibility and work on projects that a larger company would not have allowed me to try.

When I decided to go back to school to get my MBA, the schools I interviewed with asked a lot about my internship. I don’t think I would have gotten to the position that I’m in at the school I’m studying at if it had not been for my professional growth at RemoteStylist.

–Rob McIntosh, Toronto, ON, Canada

A lapdog no more

I worked for an environmental non-profit in the summer of 2008 and did nothing but lapdog work. I was expected to run errands for the boss in the company car — a smoke-spewing 1991 Tahoe (strange choice for a sustainability group). I was supposed to be paid $10 an hour but my compensation was either delinquent or absent at every pay period.

My actual duties deviated from what was advertised — I was supposed to be involved with real operations, but I ended up manning phones and satisfying the boss’s wild whims.

Unpaid work shouldn’t exist. College is expensive and certain employers take advantage of the competitive landscape to back students into a corner. For law students (I’m enrolled at GW Law), it is even worse — rising second years (like me) are expected to take unpaid work in spite of the fact that the majority have enormous educational debt obligations.

Employers know how desperate students can be to network and build relationships with potentially important people. They take advantage of this knowledge to get things done for free. As students, we need to stop this.

-Michael Nissenbaum, Manhasset, N.Y.

Stuck in the middle: Keeping the unpaid interns calm

A small company I worked for took the stance that after the recession all entry-level employees would be brought in as full-time, unpaid interns. As manager of the company’s internship program, their development became my responsibility. It was a very delicate balance. I wanted to push the employees to learn, work hard, and show their skills to upper level management. At the same time, it was difficult to push them too hard because they were unpaid.

The unpaid employees were quickly integrated as full members of specific teams, but it was very difficult to ask them to stay late. I went through several iterations of these unpaid full-time interns, and the most important thing I learned was that you absolutely have to set a timeline. You have to set specific dates with the employee like, “we will review your performance at this date,” and “by this specific date we will sit down and make a decision if you will be hired or not.”

I had to sit through many meetings early on and the interns would ask me when they would get hired. I didn’t have an answer to give them because it was not my ultimate decision. I could give my input, but in the end it was up to the executives. And of course, when I asked the executives about when we would make a decision, I would get the runaround. Setting a date with the employee for when you will decide if they will be hired or not is the most important thing when working with an unpaid intern or temp worker.

-Regan Hickey, Chicago, Ill.


You Can’t Fire Everyone: Have you recently taken a salary cut?
Have you recently jumped off the salary ledge and taken a lower-paying job? Did you choose to make the leap or was it chosen for you? How has it worked out? Tell us your stories. We’ll highlight the most interesting and instructional ones. Email us at fired@fortune.com.