Most people who intern presumably do so because they expect the job experience will get them hired--if not for the firm they work for, at least for someone else. They hope to gain real-world experience and to make connections with people so that once the unpaid period is over, they'll be more employable.
Sometimes this works really well. Internships were required for DH's field of study before graduation, and sure enough, he got hired right afterward (though not for the exact hospital he'd hoped for, at least for the same company). In my artsy program, there was no such program, and probably much fewer people who found jobs upon graduation.
I'm a big advocate of taking volunteer positions in order to ease transitions back into the working world or into a new career, but it's not always so simple.
This article suggests that most unpaid interns don't do nearly as well when it comes to post-internship positions as paid interns do.
Some interns, however, swear by their unpaid work as worthwhile, and believe that their internships launched their future careers.
It's possible that, due to recent lawsuits, employers might eliminate their unpaid internships altogether. I can understand the courts' dilemma. It does seem like employers can use internships as a way to get stuff done for cheap that they should really be paying an employee to do, and that only rich kids can take advantage of them since it's hard to, you know, eat, when you're not bringing in any money. But they knew what they signed up for, too. Caveat emptor and all that.
In any case, I sometimes wonder how responsible employers are about matching interns to their companies. Do they hire interns just for the free labor without any intention of hiring them? One example is Sara Lee's returnship program for parents returning to the workforce. I think it's a great concept, but CEO Brenda Lee admitted at the time that Sara Lee didn't plan on a huge increase in hiring.
So, what say you? Do you think internships are a good way to prepare for a career or an employer's way to rip people off? (The comic below isn't about interns per se but is still funny)