Is an internship worth the effort?

Jack Moran tries to answer the age old question of whether all those hours you’re spending working for free are going to do you any good.

Ah, the time honoured tradition of the internship. The perfect way to get those two years of experience required for the entry-level job you’ll be scrambling for once you graduate. With many industries inundated with prospective employees, an internship seems like the perfect way to set yourself apart from the rabble and rise to the top of the resume pile. With so much effort and time going into some internships, especially when they’re unpaid, is an internship really worth it?

According to an article from the myfuture website, internships can certainly have some serious benefits. Networking, finding a mentor, practical experience in the field that you’re aiming for and resume-building are just some of the positive things that students can take from an internship. Internships can be a great way of affirming that your future career is right for you or a great way of finding out that it isn’t.

For Bachelor of Visual Communication Design student Laura, an internship doing graphic design work for a company in Newcastle even meant the opportunity for paid work afterwards. After a few months of unpaid work, the company offered her the first graphic design job she’d ever had. She said, however, that sometimes she felt like her skills weren’t being utilised.

“It was fine except I was never given enough work and would sit there for seven or eight hours,” she said, “At least half of which I would have nothing to do during because the manager would go in meetings and leave no work or I would finish work quicker than he expected.”

As the internship was mostly completed over semester breaks and only required her to be in the office once a week, she found that it did not necessarily interrupt her studies much.

It is important to note, however, that for some degrees an internship (or a placement) is a compulsory part of study. For example, Bachelor of Social Work student Kate had to complete a 70 day minimum placement as part of her third year course work. Kate did her placement at Family and Community Services in the High Risk Infant team and said the experience was like undertaking a full time job.

“If only I was getting paid. It was essentially like working full time as a case worker for 15 weeks,” she said.

She did however recognise that she was there as a student and to learn. One challenge was that working what was essentially an unpaid full-time job was financially difficult but luckily her manager was flexible and allowed her to fit other paid work into the placement. When asked if the placement was worth it, she said it definitely was.

“I learned so much about what being a social worker can be like, the ins and outs of child protection, the importance of early intervention in working with prenatal child protection concerns, what being in that kind of government department workplace is like,” she said. “I walked away knowing I was doing the right degree which was a great feeling. And I got to put all the things I had learned in class into practice.”

Not all internships and placements can end up quite so rewarding and can often be said to turn exploitative instead. A 2013 report commissioned by the Fair Work Ombudsman found that there was reason to suspect that businesses are using unpaid interns to perform work that would normally be done by paid workers. So while internships can certainly be beneficial to your future career, it is important to know what kind of rights you have.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, there are several factors to take into consideration to gauge if your unpaid internship is okay. One of the most major is what kind of work you are doing. If you’re doing any more than just observing and instead doing work that is productive and more rewarding to the business than it is to you, chances are you are doing work that a paid employee should be doing. If you’re having to get someone’s coffee, work with clients on your own or make products for the company, then chances are you are doing the work of a paid employee and your internship should be paid.

The only exception to this is if your placement or internship is part of vocational education. If you’re completing an internship as part of your course then it is legal for the company or organisation you’re working with to not pay you – regardless of what kind of work you’re doing.

So while we can see that internships are certainly worth the effort and can provide students and jobseekers with a wealth of benefits that can have great impacts on their career, it is important to recognise that unpaid internships can be a little murky and even exploitative. Make sure you know your worth and your rights as a worker when you take on any internship or placement.

Feature Image: Rayi Christian Wicaksono, Unsplash, no changes made.

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