At American University (AU), interns don’t just fetch coffee or make copies. They work in one of the most exciting cities in the world and learn about their fields and themselves through stimulating experiences.
As many readers here know, I’m very supportive of the movement to end unpaid internships. Too often they are exploitative, exclusionary, and discriminatory. When unpaid interns deliver genuine work contributions, including doing ordinary errands and office work, their employers receive unjust enrichment. Also, unpaid internships exclude those who cannot afford to work for free or, at the very least, require them to do burdensome double shifts, one unpaid (the internship), the other paid (a gig to pay the bills).
The value of grunt work
That said, I have nothing against paying interns for work that may include taking a lunch order or two. In fact, I endorse it, and here’s why:
Quality internships help people to develop skills, gain experience, and build credentials relevant to occupations they wish to enter. They also allow employers to create a pipeline of talent into a field and to evaluate candidates for possible future employment.
Part of that arrangement involves the nurturing of a work ethic that includes a willingness to do grunt tasks that need to be done. A year ago, I wrote a piece listing out the qualities of my best bosses over the course of my working life. Here’s one of them:
There was no task beneath them. No princes or princesses. They’d jump in and do the same work you were doing if it needed to get done.
Any good employer evaluating the performance of an intern would want to see those qualities as well. Taking a coffee order or running the photocopier allows more experienced people to stay on focus. It contributes to the work of the organization. Assuming that such tasks are assigned fairly, the intern who balks at one is revealing something. In professional and creative settings, we sometimes have too many show horses and not enough work horses.
So yes, interns should be paid. And if an occasional assignment falls short of providing an intellectual or creative challenge, then that, too, may be a good test of someone’s worthiness for future employment.