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Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?

Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?

Internships Worth

Today, unpaid internships have become a bit controversial.

With minimum wage, the cost of education and student loans rising, working for free presents challenges, particularly when the intern is just running errands and getting coffee. Are unpaid internships worth it?

Internships originated in the era of craftsmanship with what was called “apprenticeship”. An apprentice exchanged their labor for learning a skill, which they could then build their career on.

Training with a master took the place of schools when there were none.

If you want to land your dream job (or any full-time job for that matter), you need to have the chops to show for it. And let’s face it – many successful people got their start with unpaid internships.

The pros and cons to consider if you’re wondering if it’s worth it:

Pros of an unpaid internship:

You’ll get greater consideration for full-time jobs

First and foremost, an internship (unpaid or not) gives you an edge. Your impressive resume will more likely get you hired than someone who has never had an internship. It shows you are dedicated and a hard worker.

It’s all about experience

They say you can learn as much as you want in school, but nothing beats a classroom in the “real world”. Whether learning how to use Photoshop, observing how to talk to clients, attend meetings or how to win a campaign, there’s no better way to learn how things work than just doing it. Plus, you’ll have a story to tell a future employer about your experience in the trenches.


You get to test the waters

The great thing about internships is they’re not forever. You get to test the waters. Let’s say you have your heart set on being a political news reporter, but found the late night hours and demanding schedule to be too much, so maybe you want to pursue something else. It gives you a front and center seat to see what that career (or company) might look like.

You’ll meet amazing people

OK – if you’re sick of hearing the word ‘network’ how about we use the term, ‘meeting people’ instead? Having a boss, co-workers and co-interns who can vouch for you or introduce you to a higher-up if you’re trying to get another job down the road can make a big difference. Or, perhaps, they love you so much they want to hire you full-time. You just never know…

A big name will pay for itself

Some big names, like media companies or political campaigns, may not have the budget for paid internships. But you’re paying for a well known name to forever be blasted on your resume. Case in point: I took a 3-month internship with Shape Magazine. I didn’t get paid, but I can still, to this day, say that I worked for Shape Magazine – and most everyone in the editorial industry knows who that is.

Those 3 months paid for themselves 10-fold in landing other jobs.


Cons of an unpaid internship

You don’t get paid, obviously

But, if you think about it as training, it’s a good deal. Like olden day apprenticeships, you’re not paying a dime for education in your career field. However, usually interns are students. Which means they’re already spending tons of money going to school, trying to have a life, and probably working a part-time job somewhere else too. In this way, internships can seem like a time-suck.

You might feel taken advantage of if you’re spending your quality time without pay. If you’re hurting for money, a paid internship may be a better option.

If you are not paid, make sure you get college credit for your time there and a solid reference. That would make it worth it.

It actually costs you money

If you work for free, you will have expenses for commuting, meals and clothes. You will need support from your family to be able to pay your own way.

The legality of no pay can be a gray area

According to The Fiscal Times, the U.S. Department of Labor says your employer needs to be paying you at least minimum wage. But, if they don’t consider you an employee, it’s free game.

It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get paid more later

The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a survey that concluded 63% of paid interns were offered a job after graduation, while only 37% of unpaid interns were offered one.


Here’s what you need to know:

In order for an unpaid internship to be legal, it needs to be an educational experience with more of a mentor/mentee relationship than a boss/employee one. Here is the 6 criteria that need to be met according to the U.S. Department of Labors’ Wage and Hour Division:

  •  The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
  •  The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  •  The intern doesn’t displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  •  The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may be impeded.
  •  The intern isn’t necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  •  The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.”

Bottom line: use your own judgment.

Weigh your options. Will the extra work pay off in the end? Having 1 or 2 unpaid internships under your belt may be your ticket to a paid one.

There are lots of reasons why an unpaid internship is worth it. Everyone has had to pay their dues (look at Oprah, Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg…)


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