The Pros and Cons of Unpaid Internships

By Marcy Lovitch · August 08, 2022 · 8 minute read

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The Pros and Cons of Unpaid Internships

Paid and unpaid internships can provide students with relevant work experience in their field of choice. While both opportunities offer knowledge and training, only one rewards you with a paycheck.

Although paid internships are more common, it doesn’t mean everyone can land one. This means if you want the experience and don’t want to pass up a chance to beef up your resume, you may have to work for free. Spending several months at an unpaid internship can be difficult, especially if you’re already carrying debt, dealing with high living expenses, or need to work a paying job.

Whether interns should be paid or not is an ongoing debate with a lot to consider before committing to one. Here, learn about the pros and cons of an unpaid internship to see if it’s worth the investment.

What Is an Unpaid Internship?

An unpaid internship is a temporary work arrangement offered to graduate, college, or high school students so they can gain training and knowledge by working in their area of interest. Interns are able to perform duties related to their chosen career, observe professionals in a workplace setting, and receive direct guidance from mentors.

These non-compensated arrangements differ from an apprenticeship, which is designed to provide hands-on training in a specific trade or industry. Apprenticeships are paid and wage increases occur as new skills are acquired.

Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

Yes, according to the The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which states “for-profit” employers must pay employees for their work. However, interns and students may not be “employees,” in which case the law doesn’t require payment for their work. If an internship qualifies as paid, companies must pay their interns at least minimum wage for their services plus any overtime.

How Do Unpaid Internships Work?

Unpaid internships typically require you to work for a specific period of time during the school year or, during the summer. The program may ask you to work on site, but with the increase in employees working from home, remote internships have become more of a possibility.

Before you start your internship, you’ll likely discuss what you’ll be doing and when you’ll be able to work with your supervisor. Since you’re not being compensated, you’ll probably have more flexibility with scheduling.

It’s important to remember an unpaid internship isn’t volunteer work and should be more beneficial to you than the business or organization. After all, the reason you’re there is to receive training and education you simply can’t get by sitting in a classroom.

Pros of Taking Unpaid Internships

Building your professional resume can be priceless and let’s face it, your calling card once you hit the job market. Besides offering exposure to what it will be like working in your specialty, you’ll build potentially lifelong connections with people who may be able to open doors for you down the road.

There are many ways an unpaid internship can help prepare you for future career success. Here are some significant advantages:

Getting Valuable Experience

As an intern, you’ll get actual hands-on training that attracts future employers. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), applicants with industry internship experience have a leg up when it comes to employers’ hiring decisions.

Working as an intern allows you to develop crucial skills you’ll need in a professional setting, such as how to communicate effectively and collaborate with others. These abilities can make you even more of a stand out to prospective employers.

Valuable experience gained from an internship isn’t exclusive to undergrads. Already have your degree? You can still build upon your knowledge with an unpaid post graduate internship. These secondary education opportunities allow you to keep actively learning while you’re pursuing full-time employment or, if you want some down time after graduation.

Networking Equals Potential Opportunity

Making connections is one of the most important things you can do to grow your career. In fact, an estimated 80% of all positions are filled through networking. Many jobs aren’t publicly advertised so if you’ve left a positive impression, you may be the first person your past internship boss calls when a job opens up. Even if your internship doesn’t culminate in employment, building a solid network and maintaining relationships can pay off if you need a future job reference, letter of recommendation, mentoring, or career advice.

Companies Offering College Credit

Many companies will offer unpaid internships for college credits as compensation for your work. Knowing you’re receiving credits towards your degree, which can be a form of currency in its own right, may help justify the decision to take an unpaid internship.

Working in a Relevant Field

Internships give a preview of what it may be like working in your area of expertise, placing you in an environment where you’re exposed to the latest technology, industry norms, and business culture. With some concrete training spent working in your field, you may be more likely to be hired compared to someone with zero internship experience or those who have interned in an unrelated field.

Helps With Making Future Career Decisions

During an unpaid internship, you may come to the realization your selected career isn’t all you imagined. In this case, you could save yourself from wasting valuable time in the future and start exploring other career options. On the other hand, your internship could crystallize how much you love what you’re doing, validating you’ve made the right choice.

You may also decide to continue on with your education as something to do after college instead of entering the job market right away. This could be an ideal time to fit in an unpaid internship before pursuing a graduate degree.

Cons of Taking Unpaid Internships

The main cons of unpaid internships center around the obvious: no financial compensation for your efforts. Unpaid internships can also create barriers for disadvantaged or low-income students, possibly eliminating some extremely qualified candidates from gaining training and having a shot at making a serious contribution to a company.

Consider these downsides when thinking about applying for unpaid internship:

No Money for Your Hard Work

Strapped with tuition and other college-related costs, many students simply can’t work without pay. Participating in an unpaid internship can require commuting or even relocation during the summer months, increasing your need to have money in a savings account or earning it at another job.

Often Not Receiving Company Benefits

As an unpaid intern and temporary worker, you’re not entitled to the same benefits of a paid employee, such as paid vacation days, medical insurance, or the ability to contribute to a 401(k). Performing duties similar to a permanent employee’s and not gleaning any of the perks may also lead to feeling resentful, unappreciated, or lonely, especially if you’re the only one working while employees get to leave early for a three-day holiday weekend.

Possible Inequalities in the Workplace

Student interns who aren’t paid may find themselves doing more menial tasks and feel looked down upon by other employees. Staffers may be dismissive, impatient, condescending, or exclude you from conversations because you’re the intern. You may also find you’re the butt of jokes or having to deal with microaggressions, which are intentional or unintentional verbal or nonverbal slights towards culturally marginalized or stigmatized groups.

One major criticism of unpaid internships concerns the perpetuation of socioeconomic and racial inequities. Individuals who come from more affluent families and don’t need the money are better situated to take an unpaid internship, putting more privileged and often white individuals, at a greater advantage. The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2021 study found 73.9% of white students had an unpaid internship compared to 10.2% Hispanic or Latinx, 8% of Black and 2.0% of Asian students.

Potential Lower Future Income

Showing you’re willing to work for free may give employers the idea you might accept a lesser amount compared to someone who had a paid internship. Making this assumption on their part could lead to a lower salary offer.

Recent research by the Strada Education Network found having a paid internship as an undergraduate is linked with a predicted increase in annual wages of $3,096 just one year after graduation. Unpaid internships, practicums and cooperative learning aren’t associated with higher earnings post-graduation, the study reports.

Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?

Of course, it’s an individual choice based on a student’s particular circumstances, but unpaid internships can be worthwhile. Even if you’re not being compensated, these situations can provide training you can only get by working with professionals and mentors. Taking an unpaid internship can take the pressure off some of the expectations, duties, and necessary time commitment you’re more likely to have as a paid intern.

The Takeaway

An unpaid internship can pay off in significant ways such as offering college credits, meeting and networking with people in your field, and providing solid work experience to bolster your resume. Unpaid internships can also help you decide whether or not you’re on the right career path. But, interning without compensation can pose some major challenges for those who can’t afford to work for free. Before applying, think through the pros and cons to help you determine whether it’s your best route.

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Are unpaid internships exploitation?

A criticism of unpaid internship programs is that they take advantage of a student’s free labor without providing any practical experience or educational benefits. While you may be asked to move some boxes or go on a coffee run, an unpaid internship that is not exploitative should mostly involve tasks that expand your skill set and teach you about your future career.

Is there a better workflow if interns are paid?

Interns help boost a company or organization’s workflow regardless, but paid interns may boost workflow more, since being financially compensated is associated with feeling satisfied and valued, which in turn is connected to productivity.

What percentages of companies offer unpaid internships?

Research shows nearly 40% of internships in the U.S. are unpaid, with the large majority of those positions found in the nonprofit, social service and government sectors. Paid internships constitute 60.8% of internships, and almost all of these paid positions are with private and for-profit companies.

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