Unpaid internships: Are they worth your time?

Unpaid internships: Are they worth it?

Breaking into the professional working world can be an arduous task as a college student. Companies are looking to hire graduates either with educational experience comparable to their industry or a comprehensive work history that’s impressive and applicable to the business. If you’re concerned about your marketability as a job candidate, before you walk at graduation you could consider applying for an internship within the career track you desire.

However, there are two options available when it comes to internships: paid and unpaid. While money is clearly a motivator, specific industries offer unpaid positions that can provide valuable experience. In some scenarios, these positions can make a good impression on a recruiter or hiring manager. They see that you worked hard at a particular position for no compensation other than educational benefit and could believe you’d manage to improve your efforts when money is introduced into the equation.

But after a New York federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures broke both federal and state labor wage laws by employing unpaid interns on the set of film, you might find it hard to believe that unpaid internships are beneficial to your career. Rather than focus on the negative, try to consider some of the possible benefits of an unpaid position first.

The positives of working unpaid
While many work incentives exist for employees, money stands out above the rest as the best motivator an employer can offer. Certain benefits such as vacation, health insurance and retirement funds can certainly sweeten the deal, but at the end of the day it all comes down to dollar signs. But what happens if you take away the money?

Regardless of being paid or not, internships for college students can teach them a great deal about the inner workings of a professional company. From the ground up, an intern can see how a product or service is designed by the staff, pitched to the executives and then sold to the company’s clients. They can learn important and intrinsic aspects of working for a business that they’ve never encountered before. The knowledge required to succeed in the professional world can be successfully obtained in a unpaid position. A student could come to understand the benefits of working in a team environment where everyone is held accountable for their efforts. There is no slacking off on your piece of the project, as it will negatively impact the team as a whole.

Additionally, unpaid interns can gain valuable insight that normally wouldn’t be acquired in a lecture hall or classroom. Under the scrutiny of established associates, an intern can learn how to properly handle various conflicts in the workplace. There is almost always going to be pressure associated with assignments and projects at work, and getting a good handle on your own response to them sets you up well for life after college.

Finally, there is always the potential of full-time employment once you’ve completed graduation. The supervisor of the position may take great pleasure in seeing that an unpaid intern has worked equally as hard – if not harder – than paid interns and staff. The possibility of making a lasting impression upon your manager is motivation enough to complete thorough, high-quality work.

And the negatives of working unpaid
As much as there are positives to working an unpaid internship, there’s an equal amount of negatives as well. First and foremost is the utter lack of financial compensation. Money is an amazing motivator, and if it’s taken away, managers do run the risk of losing the interest of their interns. As the intern, you could be wasting valuable time at an unpaid position when you could possibly be working part-time to earn some wages to supplement your income.

Additionally, there is always the risk that the position you take doesn’t actually provide any valuable work or industry experience. A recruiter might tell you that you’ll be working directly with senior managers on important projects, but it’s possible you wind up making more runs to Dunkin Donuts than market research on investments. Instead of letting you produce content or complete important assignments, they could stick you in a cubicle for 9 hours a day with little interaction with anyone else.

Remember that internships are supposed to be similar to being in school. You should be learning valuable information about the industry or position you’re involved in. The goal is to train you for the business, not for the employer to reap the benefits of a free employee.

The future of unpaid internships
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act passed by Congress back in 1938, a position must meet six criteria to be considered lawfully unpaid. Without them a business could face legal ramifications, such as class action lawsuits, from disgruntled former interns.

Outten & Golden, an employment law firm based in New York, was responsible for the plaintiff-side of the Fox Searchlight case. In addition to that one, they are also suing Heart Magazines on behalf of an intern from Harper’s Bazaar, who claimed she worked 55 hours per week with no pay. Because of this spike in lawsuits, some business lawyers are advising their clients to eradicate their internship programs to avoid any litigation. Only time will tell how much longer the unpaid internship will be an option for companies.

Choosing to work an unpaid internship is a challenging situation. On one hand, you can learn valuable skills and expertise while proving your worth to a prospective employer. But on the other hand, you could be taken advantage of by a company that doesn’t value the benefits of its internship program. Be that as it may, if you’re considering applying for an internship that doesn’t pay, make sure that you speak with the recruiter and fully understand what the position will entail. Make it clear that you want to be contributing to the success of the company, not picking up its dry cleaning and delivering lunch.

At Experience.com, our mission is to provide the latest marketplace insights for students, recent college graduates and industry veterans. With expert guidance and breaking news about available premium entry level jobs and paid internships, your career starts here.

Source: Experience.com