There are a lot of articles out there that simply hate on unpaid internships (at times in this post I will also take a dump on the concept). However, I want to explore both sides of the story to determine if unpaid internships are really worth it.
I have been an intern before. In fact I have been unpaid intern before. So I’m a pretty good judge to provide an overall perspective on the concept.
But before I take you on this journey I want to make one thing clear – I’m not an advocate for free work. Rather I want to help you decide if taking an unpaid internship is worth it given your own circumstances.
So let’s start by looking at the three main reasons why companies seek to engage unpaid interns:
- They want to take advantage of the current job market (lack of entry level positions for young employees) to engage free labour. Essentially, the unpaid intern does the job of a paid employee but doesn’t get paid. This type is completely unfair and such internships should not exist. For the record, I have completed this type of internship before. It’s a disheartening experience.
- They partner up with schools, Universities or other educational institutions to help students complete their study requirements and gain valuable industry experience.
- They are seeking to provide the unpaid intern with some industry experience and training. In return, the unpaid intern will receive future job prospects with the employer (assuming you do a good job and there is a position available) or a professional reference you can use when applying for other entry level positions in the future.
I don’t think anyone could argue that reason 1 is anything but unethical, immoral, and probably illegal. But unfortunately, the Australian job market has gotten to the point where young students feel that they have to do whatever they can to gain industry experience – even if this means working for free. Organisations know this and some use it to their advantage. Wherever possible avoid getting yourself into these situations.
But how can you identify such internships? Look for the signs. These include:
- Required to work more than 3 days a week
- A lack of a formal training program
- The unpaid nature of the internship is not disclosed on the job advertisement (why is the organisation hiding this?)
- The duration of the internship exceeds 12 weeks
- The responsibilities of the intern appear to be equivalent to what a paid employee would be expected to complete
A legit unpaid internship program should always be designed to benefit the intern more than the organisation. If at any time you are tasked with work that a paid employee should be completing its likely your situation falls under reason 1. Unpaid internships should be designed around a solid and well planned training program that aims to enhance the interns skill set and industry knowledge.
Receiving training and development is key here. In fact, an unpaid internship program should look and feel more like a training program and less like work. At the end of the day, if you are completing work you should be getting rewarded for it.
So where does this leave us? My advice is to always look for paid experience first and an unpaid internship should be an absolute last resort. There are of course cases where your educational institute may require you to complete unpaid industry experience and this is fine. Learn as much as you can and then get out once it is done. If you do decide to give an unpaid internship a go make sure the organisation has you there for the right reasons.
Still trying to decide? Check out this table below:
- Resume booster (work experience)
- Prospect of future employment at that organisation
- Professional reference that can be used when applying to entry level positions
- Upskill/ practical experience
- Increase professional network (increased LinkedIn connections)
- Make new friends
- You have to work for free!!!
- Can be disheartening and demotivating
- The organisation COULD be taking advantage of you
- Cost of time (Could be making $$ in another job instead of working for free)
- May have to juggle another form of paid employment to get by
- Less time to spend in other parts of your life: studying, paid employment, friends, and most importantly sleeping.
For more information on this topic check out https://www.fairwork.gov.au/how-we-will-help/templates-and-guides/fact-sheets/unpaid-work/unpaid-work
For anything else relevant to young employees check out our blog page (it’s awesome!!).