Is it ethical to offer unpaid internships?

As a part of the dream when I founded KTM Solutions, I wanted to work with aspiring engineers. There is something about the enthusiasm of a student that brings excitement into the office. Students begin with dreams, ambitions, and ideas that seem to soften as we get older. Perhaps it’s that these students haven’t experienced the disappointment of a project gone bad. Or maybe it’s that they haven’t had their visions and dreams shattered by some “more experienced person” telling them that their idea is impossible or that “we don’t do things that way.”  After all, the impossible today may be possible tomorrow.

The passion of a student that has dreams of the future is always enjoyable to witness. That’s why when KTM was founded we immediately opened our doors to provide a learning opportunity to high school and college students.

Paid Advertisement

A question to the audience: Is a learning experience enough compensation for these students, or should they receive something more? I recently saw articles noting that the topic of monetary compensation for internships launched a firestorm on social media. Many pundits argued that financial compensation is an ethical issue. There are good points on both sides of the argument, particularly when it comes to college students that are struggling to live on their own, pay for college, or do both.

An unpaid internship for these students could eliminate a very viable candidate simply because they can’t afford to work without financial compensation. On the other hand, there is a cost that the company absorbs to provide a learning opportunity for students, especially in professional positions. I offer the following as an example to spur thought and discussion.

At KTM Solutions, we have two types of student learning opportunities we call “internships.” For simplicity, I will call one “high school level” and the other “college level” internships. KTM’s high school internships are offered to rising high school seniors that have an interest in a mechanical-engineering career. The high school student works through a curriculum that was developed by our engineering department to teach basic design and analysis skills.

The students learn the proper way to plan and execute a design project. At the culmination of their learning experience, students will have completed a practical design project and will have demonstrated the ability to create good mechanical drawings and reports. Through a series of formal design reviews, the students will gain experience in presenting and defending their designs before a group of engineers. High school–level interns do not receive monetary compensation; however, they generally receive class credit through their local high school.

High school students are not used on any billable work, at least not while they are in the high school internship program. If the student completes the internship in good standing, they are generally offered a part-time paid position during the summer after graduation and during semester breaks while working toward an engineering degree. Part-time employment offers are based on technical work available in the office.

On the other hand, KTM Solutions has chosen to compensate college-level interns for their work. At KTM Solutions, we have higher expectations for these students, primarily because they usually have demonstrated through study or experience a level of technical ability. We expect to use a college student on billable work after a very short training period. Most of the college students we hire have some experience with drafting, the design/modeling tools, and simple engineering calculations. Students that have completed our high school internship program have an inside track as we understand their capabilities and capacity for work.

With the oversight of a senior engineer, college-level interns and students that have successfully completed the high school program are able to perform quickly. In return for their work, they gain meaningful experience and earn money to help them with their college and living expenses. Although the college student pay range is significantly less than a graduate engineer, we believe the compensation is fair.

Sometimes the ideal just doesn’t work out. In the summer of 2020, COVID had a significant impact on many businesses. By June 2020, our business was off from the business plan by 50%. For the first time in our company history, we made the decision to cancel the summer internship program. In hopes that the economy would reopen in time to support our program in the summer months and some of the customer delays would be resolved, we had completed our selection process in April 2020 and selected two former high school interns.

When we determined that a delay or even cancellation of the internship program was possible, we communicated this to our chosen interns. When we finally decided to cancel, both asked whether there was anything they could do, even a few hours per week to gain some experience. They offered to come in for no compensation. In fact, we had a third student contact us asking for experience at no compensation just so they would have a record of work on their resume.


Perhaps some would say this is an easy decision, but it wasn’t.  Some might say, “They chose to gain experience over financial gain—what’s the big deal?” Others might say, “Why would you let someone work for no compensation? It’s not ethical.” We chose to let these students “volunteer” for some internal KTM projects (not billable work). As a part of our shift during the pandemic, we decide to go into the polycarbonate-barrier business, which required a whole new setup in our shop.

These students helped us design a set of tools to enable production with the hopes that we would soon receive orders for plastic barriers. The students did a great job. The good news: about midway through the summer, we were getting large orders for partitions. When the orders picked up, we brought on both students as paid interns. They finished the design and build of all the production tools and learned firsthand about production support.

Interestingly, both mechanical-engineering students felt good about their contribution and the difference they made. The third student, a cyber-engineering major, worked on an internal R&D project for a new proprietary system KTM is developing. It was his first internship and he was delighted to have the experience. In full disclosure, the third intern was my nephew and my wife and I did provide food (including large amounts of ice cream) and shelter for him while he was working in our office.

I have always believed it is industries’ responsibility to provide opportunities to develop the next generation of the workforce. I can rest easy with the way KTM has decided to implement internships. I believe that it is fair to provide a “learning only” experience for high school students, particularly if they receive classroom credit toward graduation for their work. College students, particularly those who assist in fulfilling a customer requirement, should be financially compensated at a fair wage. What is your company’s position? What is your personal take on pay versus learning experience? What would you have done in the summer of 2020?

Paul V. Kumler, P.E., is president of KTM Solutions, an engineering company that services the aerospace and large-scale manufacturing industries. In addition to aero structures engineering services, KTM Solutions designs and builds tooling supporting a broad clientele and various industries. ( The company is headquartered in Greer, South Carolina, with remote offices in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Kumler serves in several volunteer roles including the SC Aerospace Advisory Board. Mr. Kumler, a professional engineer, is licensed in Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington. He is married to Ginger A. Kumler. Together, they have two grown children and three grandchildren.

Be the first to comment on "Is it ethical to offer unpaid internships?"

Leave a comment