The Benefits of Unpaid Internships: Give Up Cash for Big Rewards Later
CEE Standard: Earning Income
Most of us do not want to work for free. Discuss with your students the benefits of getting an unpaid internship versus a paying job. Help them decide whether an unpaid internship might be worth it.
Very few people want to work for free. It’s understandable, really — if you’re going to invest your time and energy into something day in and day out, you’d like to at least walk away with a paycheck.
Fortunately, working for no pay doesn’t happen often to adults, but when you’re young, the opportunity to work for nothing presents itself again and again in the form of unpaid internships.
I’ll admit that, at first, the entire idea seemed ridiculous (and perhaps even a little insulting) to me. Why would I waste my time on something if it wasn’t going to bulk up my wallet? What was the point?
However, in my college years, I learned some benefits of unpaid internships. In fact, I accepted two such opportunities while I was in college — one of which I stuck with for three semesters in a row. Since then, I’ve become somewhat of an advocate for unpaid internships.
Of course, if you can land hands-on experience that will also send you home with extra cash, that’s great. But if you find a great opportunity that offers you tons of transferable skills, but not a paycheck, think about it before saying no.
Here are a few of the many benefits of unpaid internships:
1. You’ll Gain Practical, Resume-Building Experience
This is perhaps the greatest advantage internships offer, whether paid or unpaid. The job market is tough, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to score yourself a great gig with no experience — even the positions that classify themselves as “entry level” prefer if you have one to three years of experience under your belt. This means that you’ll find yourself in that infamous Catch-22 of job searches: You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience.
This is where internships come into play. They’re an awesome way to dip your toes in, pick up some new skills, and gain some actual, relevant experience without needing to convince an employer to take a chance and invest a large sum of money in you.
Trust me, you’ll end your internship with a résumé that’s much improved from the one you started with, and you will be exposed to real-life work situations.
2. You’ll Expand Your Network
We’ve all heard that classic saying, “It’s not always what you know, but who you know.” When you make your entry into the working world, you’ll quickly realize that this sentiment holds a lot of water.
Unfortunately, it can be somewhat tough to meet a large number of beneficial connections while you’re still in school.
Sure, there are your professors, your friends, and the random acquaintances you meet at campus events. But an internship presents the chance to network, shake hands, and develop relationships with tons of people who work in the industry that you’re interested in — and who will likely be able to help you as you move along through your career. Even if it’s an industry you don’t end up working in–you never know when a contact can be useful.
3. You’ll Have Clearer Career Goals
It can definitely be intimidating to feel like you have to know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life, before you’ve even had the opportunity to actually try anything. At times, it can feel downright impossible.
This is another reason why an internship can be so worthwhile: You’ll get to try your hand at different roles and responsibilities and find out what best suits you. You can then use that valuable information to zero in on a career path that you’ll be happy with experience to back-up your decision.
Plus, if you can manage to feel passionate about something even when you’re not getting paid for it, then you know that you’ve found something you truly enjoy.
4. You Can Get College Credit or other Perks
While you may not be earning a paycheck for the time you spend at your internship, that doesn’t mean that you’re walking away totally empty-handed. Many organizations work with colleges to offer academic credits in exchange for internships.
I was able to rack up nine total college credits through my different internship opportunities. It saved me some money on college courses, and I felt like I learned more working than I ever did sitting in a classroom.
Moreover, while some companies may not be able to pay your hourly wage, it can’t hurt to ask if the employer would consider picking up other costs such as your lunch or transportation.
5. You Could Walk Away With a Job
Fair warning: This doesn’t work out for everybody, and I’d never advise you to accept an internship under the assumption that it’ll lead to permanent employment. However, there are plenty of companies out there that do end up hiring their college interns on a full-time basis. And that’s exactly what happened to me.
I worked at my college marketing internship for three semesters in a row and was already pleased with the amount of college credit I was able to gain through that experience. But not long after I walked across that graduation stage and wrapped my hand around that diploma, I was offered a full-time gig with the company where I had spent the previous year and a half interning.
It was an unexpected but welcome surprise. For all the reasons mentioned above, my internship was already a positive experience. But sealing the deal with a full-time job was definitely the icing on the cake.
I can understand why anybody would be hesitant to work for free.
But despite the lack of pay, internships can be a great opportunity to gain experience, expand your network of contacts, and maybe even (as in my case) land your first full-time job. So go ahead — give one a try and see where it takes you. I’m willing to bet you won’t regret it.
Paid Internships vs. Those for College Credit
- If you’re lucky enough to land a paid internship, make sure to clear it with your academic advisor to be sure you’ll still be eligible for credit. Compensation for interns can be hourly, weekly, a set stipend for the duration of your internship, or cover only your travel.
- The average pay for an undergrad intern jumped to $19.05 per hour in 2019, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Do your research to make sure you’re being paid fairly before you accept or decline.
- The number of credits earned, if any, varies on the college and how many hours you put into the internship over the course of the semester. Speak with your college advisor when planning your next semester to figure out how your specific school handles internships.
Requirements for Unpaid Internships
The Department of Labor has a seven-factor list that must be met in order for an unpaid internship to be deemed legal:
- The internship is essentially the same training that would be given in an educational environment.
- It entitles the intern to academic credit.
- It also aligns with the academic calendar.
- The intern doesn’t displace regular staff and works under the supervision of existing employees.
- The length of the internship is limited to the period when the internship educates the intern.
- The intern understands that there is no guarantee of a paid job at the end of the program.
- The employer and the intern both understand and accept that the internship is unpaid.
Additional reporting by Jazmin Rosa.