Unpaid internships: experience or exploitation?

Unpaid internships: experience or exploitation?

Unpaid internships might be getting a lot of flak, but they’re not going away. In many industries like marketing, fashion and media, they’re almost a rite of passage. Are unpaid internships a valuable learning experience? Or are they a way for companies to get cheap labour and take advantage of young people struggling to find work?

An unbalanced relationship

According to Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman, an internship is a learning experience that benefits the intern. If the business benefits from engaging the person, it’s more likely that the intern is an employee and should be paid.

‘Unpaid internships should deliver a tangible benefit to the interns and should not skew the labour market by having unpaid labour substituting for what would otherwise be paid labour done by regular employees,’ explains Anthony O’Donnell from La Trobe University Law School.

But with most job offers requiring several years of experience, students entering the job market or changing careers are ready to do whatever it takes to get their foot in the door.

‘I’m being told that doing internships is what I have to do […] That’s what everyone who has a job is saying,’ says Claire Varley, a journalism student at La Trobe.

Listen to other La Trobe students talking internships with Upstart:

A mix of exploitation and privilege

We had a quick look at internships offered on job websites:

  • A conferencing company is looking for brand creatives and design specialists to work for free three days a week for an unspecified period of time.
  • A digital agency wants a social media intern to work five days a week for three months. The intern will be paid $50 a day, which is under $7 an hour.
  • An event company wants an unpaid intern who is available two to five days a week for at least six months.

Looking at these examples, it’s clear that some interns are doing work usually done by a paid employee. Not only that, some interns are required to be specialists or experts.

Interns can be expected to work several days a week, for months, without getting paid. Few people can afford that, unless they’re wealthy or supported by their family.

‘Some internships are a peculiar mix of exploitation and privilege: they can favour those who have the resources to absorb the short term losses for (perceived) long term gain,’ says Anthony O’Donnell.

Earlier this year, an Adelaide law firm pushed the limits by requiring junior lawyers to pay $22,000 in exchange for a job. After receiving pressure from the Law Society of South Australia, the firm backed off.

How to pick a good internship

So what to do? You need experience to crack the job market. An internship can help you with that, as long as you pick the right one.

For Anthony O’Donnell, the best internships are the ones done as part of a course: ‘The interns are supervised by properly briefed staff who are up to speed about what the purpose of the placement is; and the placement is related back to the classroom through reflective practice.’ Many undergraduate and postgraduate courses include internships. Even if it’s not advertised, check with your supervisor to see if you can replace a subject with an internship.

In general, look for internships that are well-structured. The position description, length and schedule should be clear from the start. You should get training and feedback throughout the experience. Have a look at the Interns Australia website to find helpful resources.

Can’t find an internship that suits you? Build your own! Approach companies with a plan and show them how you can help each other. Outline what you want to learn, how long and how often you are prepared to work, and include what’s in it for them.

Get the most out of your internship

Once you’ve secured that great internship, there are some things you can do to wring even more value out of your experience.

  • Build your professional network. Keep in touch with your new contacts via LinkedIn.
  • Ask for a letter of recommendation and a LinkedIn endorsement.
  • Develop new skills. Work on varied projects so you can learn more.
  • Build your portfolio. Get tangible examples of your work.
  • Learn about the industry. Attend industry events, find a mentor and ask questions.

At La Trobe, we offer internship subjects for many of our courses like the Juris Doctor, the Master of Strategic Communication and the Master of Nursing. If you’re interested in postgraduate studies, book a one-on-one consultation to learn about your options.

Photo by StartupStockPhotos

2 thoughts on “Unpaid internships: experience or exploitation?”

  1. Very grey area – but in the end I guess it is voluntary. One should get what they want out of the internship – usually just a company to put on the resume, then move on 🙂

    1. I agree it’s a grey area. Personally, I’ve done a week-long internship when I was in university and thought it was really good. I learned a lot and it turned into a paying job. But I was lucky enough to have the financial support of my family so it wasn’t a big deal to miss a week of work. Not everybody can afford it though, especially when some internships run for months.

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