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Unpaid internships - do or don't?

Internships are a great way to gain work experience, bolster your resume, and potentially, land a full-time position. However, they also require a significant time and monetary commitment. Usually compensation for those commitments come in the form of a paycheck from your employer. But if the internship is unpaid, how do you decide if it’s worth your time?

Looking to turn an internship into a full time position?

If you’re looking to turn an internship into a full-time position you may want to be reconsider taking an unpaid internship. According to a study by The National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE) , only 37% of unpaid interns got job offers compared to the 60% for paid interns who received job offers. That’s just 1% better than graduates with no internship experience. And of those who did receive full time offers, graduates who only had unpaid internships earned on average of $14,000 less than those who had paid internships.

So, what if you’re just looking for industry experience? Or what if your top choice of employer is only offering an unpaid position? In the media industry especially, some of the best internships offered by top companies are unpaid. Regardless of the aforementioned statistics, unpaid internships do offer students valuable hands-on work experience and the chance to make beneficial contacts in their chosen field. Here are a few key points produced by the National Council for Work Experience to help you decide whether an unpaid internship is worth your while.

Key points to remember when considering an unpaid internship

  • Make sure the purpose and expectations of the internship clear from the start – have you been provided with a detailed job description?

  • Ensure the placement is valuable – does it give insight into a particular industry? Will it improve certain skills or clarify career aspirations?

  • Discuss the possibilities of any future paid work with the employer

  • Re-consider the value of the internship if it will quickly cease to supply useful contacts and training opportunities.

  • Make sure the position provides you with your desired work-life balance.

Legal Considerations

An important thing to note is many unpaid internships are actually illegal. The United States Department of Labor has created guidelines for unpaid internships in the for-profit sector:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.

  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

  6. The employer and the intern both understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Note that the federal guidelines do not offer an exemption for interns who receive course credit from their colleges or universities for their work experience. Course credit is often used by employers to justify an otherwise illegal unpaid internship. Compensating interns through course credit is not sufficient. Course credit is given out by higher education institutions, not employers. It is still the responsibility of the employer to comply with labor laws and pay their interns if they are qualified as employees.

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