Unpaid Internships: Weighing the Benefits

Students have been debating whether not to take an unpaid internship for the past several decades. They offer so many pros and cons including fabulous job experience and the chance to receive a recommendation, but the reality is they don’t pay any money. Without the basic benefits of a minimum wage, interns often spend money in order to complete their internship programs.


1. Perspective

Because interns will often spend money in order to complete an internship, (for example, work-appropriate attire, gasoline or public transportation costs, networking lunches that they otherwise couldn’t afford etc…) they’re advised to think of it as an investment. If interns view the internship as an actual class (most interns receive college credit) then they can think of their investment as tuition. When internships are viewed as a class they make more sense. We spend tons of money on tuition, fees, books etc… to attend college and yet we work harder than ever. An internship is a form of on-the-job education.

2. Reality

To be fair, the reality of an unpaid internship is that the interns are working for free. Many people have an inherent issue with this, and their feeling is entirely valid. Ultimately, students will have to reconcile whether considering an internship is the best option for them. However, several comparable opportunities are available to students in precarious financial positions; working as a Teacher Assistant (TA), Research Assistant (RA) or other academic position on campus are great ways to advance knowledge in the field while simultaneously earning money. Additionally, conducting volunteer work, in which a person is allowed to make their own schedule and determine their specific time contribution, is a good alternative.

3. Why are internships unpaid?

From the perspective of the employer, the team often has to take time out of their day in order to help the intern learn about the inner workings of the office and get to know the intricacies of the field. This takes time out of their schedule and energy away from the company’s financial goals. The company will generally view the intern’s contributions as a fair exchange for the amount of time spent on training. This is generally why college credit is given in lieu of a salary.

4. Watch out for scams

Legitimate internships will generally require the intern to provide ample proof that they will receive college credit in exchange for their internship services. Summer internships should last no more than 2 to 3 months, making it a reasonable financial sacrifice for many Americans. Some legitimate internships may last as many as six months in certain situations. Unfortunately, many employers would like to have a free employee and advertise for an “intern” as a way of minimizing expenses. Many recent graduates will receive an unpaid “internship” with a verbal promise of being hired on full-time upon the completion of the initial intern period. Graduates considering this option should be 100% sure that they have a guaranteed offer of employment that is legally enforceable prior to accepting these types of jobs. More often than not, interns are let go for one reason or another only to be replaced by another unpaid employee. Without a solid contract or college credit the likelihood of being scammed increases.

5. Getting the most out of an internship

It’s important to put forth a best effort and attitude during a summer internship. Although interns will often make copies, go through filing cabinets, and make countless pots of coffee for the staff, they will also learn valuable skills. Interns should take every opportunity to learn about the intricacies of the company or the field they are working in and also network like crazy. The more connections an intern makes with employees, the more likely they will be to receive a reference later on. Interns who have the opportunity to eat lunch with the team, have a coffee after work, or otherwise socialize within the business world are highly encouraged to take full advantage of these opportunities. Interns are also encouraged to be extremely positive and upbeat on the job; the more positive and friendly a person is the more likely it is for them to be hired in the future.

Bottom line

Although working for free presents a harsh financial reality for the majority of America’s young adults, if students can figure out a way to view their internship as a summer school course, they will have potentially endless job possibilities in the future.

This article originally appeared on Plexuss

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