Internships are the new entry-level jobs. In this economy, critics often argue, the unpaid internship is a good way into a company. It helps give one demonstrate experience demanded for real jobs, and it provides a great opportunity to display talent.

But it doesn’t really work out that nicely. According to a piece by Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic:

For three years, the National Association of Colleges and Employers has asked graduating seniors if they’ve received a job offer and if they’ve ever had either a paid or unpaid internship. And for three years, it’s reached the same conclusion: Unpaid internships don’t seem to give college kids much of a leg up when it comes time to look for employment.

This year, NACE queried more than 9,200 seniors from February through the end of April. They found that 63.1 percent of students with a paid internship under their belt had received at least one job offer. But only 37 percent of former unpaid interns could say the same — a negligible 1.8 percentage points more than students who had never interned.

Interestingly, paid internships do seem to help a fair amount in securing an actual job. Here’s the information:

This isn’t to say, of course, that your specific unpaid internship won’t help you get a job at your company, or that having an unpaid internship at one place won’t lead to a real job somewhere else.

But no, having an unpaid internship at a place barely makes you more likely to get a job at that place than if you’d never interned at all. Having a paid internship, however, dramatically improves one’s chances of getting a job.

We’re not entirely sure why this is the case. I suspect this is because paid internships are sort of like jobs-lite, where employers are more likely to give the intern substantive work, expect greater performance, provide and more opportunities for the intern to demonstrate talent. In addition, offering remuneration for an internship also improves the applicant pool. An organization is more likely to get serious potential employees if it offers to pay interns than if it doesn’t.

The other explanation is structural. Because unpaid internships don’t offer real money, people who hold them usually have to also work part-time jobs. Organizations, which understand this, often allow unpaid interns to come in only several days a week. This makes sense, but having several interns working only a few days a week makes it less likely they can take on substantive projects and show real talent. And it’s a demonstration of talent that leads organizations to actually hire interns permanently.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer