Is an Unpaid Internship Worth It?

Josh Felber

Love them or hate them, internships have become an almost mandatory bullet point on a job seeker's resume. Students all over the world apply and compete for limited spots at prestigious organizations, with 65 percent of 2015 college graduates stating that they participated in an internship or co-op. For many, an internship at a well-known organization opens the doors to numerous career opportunities, and can provide the experience needed to attract recruiters.

Internship season brings thousands of resumes and hours of interviews, and students are hardly deterred from the overwhelming process. But for many students, these internships are unpaid and that raises an important question: Are internships worth the free labor?

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Any unpaid internship is exactly that. It's an internship in which the intern does not receive any financial compensation for their duties. Some programs offer class credit in place of monetary compensation, and many students are willing to sacrifice payment just to be able to put an organization's name on their resume or LinkedIn. For students still working toward their degrees, an unpaid internship can offer promising opportunities after graduation. But for recent graduates looking for work, an unpaid internship poses many challenges and few benefits.

The benefits of any internship. While receiving financial compensation for your work is always a bonus, there are plenty of benefits students can glean from an unpaid internship. For starters, they give students a glimpse into the "real world" and an opportunity to navigate through a corporate environment. Interns will learn how to work together in teams to complete week or month-long projects and how to compromise or state their opinions in meetings objectively. These internships are also easier to obtain and, of course, look great on your resume as you apply for full-time positions.

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Learning how to successfully work with a diverse array of colleagues can't be taught in the classroom, and it can be difficult for students to find mentors within their university program. Internships provide opportunities for students to network with seasoned professionals in the field of their choice, which can help job-seekers who are looking for recommendations or mutual connections. Additionally, internships are only temporary and typically conclude after three months. If you find that the work you are doing is not satisfying or what you're looking for, an internship can help you determine what type of career to look for next.

The downsides of unpaid work. The problems with unpaid internships are many, and chances are that your unpaid internship will not lead to a full-time, paid return offer. On the other hand, students who worked as paid interns were more likely to receive a full-time offer and a higher salary when compared to students who worked an unpaid internship, according to a study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The pay disparity between paid and unpaid interns who do find employment is striking. For example, completing a paid internship or co-op with a private, for-profit company yielded a median starting salary offer of $53,521, according to the NACE survey. Students who worked unpaid gigs with private, for-profit companies earned just $34,375. And for interns who are post-graduates looking to change careers, taking an unpaid internship makes even less sense and can cause major setbacks for their professional life.

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Another big problem with unpaid internships, namely for students, is that these interns often have to pay for their internships if they wish to receive class credit. Students technically are still in school and their internship is in place of a class. While the price ranges from public to private universities, the cost of each credit can reach well over $1,000. These unpaid internships can also be demeaning. There are plenty of horror stories of interns who spent their entire summers fetching coffee or running errands for their executive managers. And despite a promise to crack down on unpaid internships, the Department of Labor has done little to enforce the existing guidelines that are supposed to protect interns, instead waiting on interns to formally complain before launching an investigation.

Deciding whether or not to take an unpaid internship really depends on your current job situation and whether or not you're a student or a graduate seeking employment. In some cases, taking that unpaid internship can be worse for your long-term career and lower your starting salary if you do find employment. As with any major decision, it's best to weigh the pros and cons of taking an unpaid internship and evaluate whether or not you have the time and financial means to work without pay.

Josh Felber, a serial entrepreneur and high performance coach, focuses on helping people design, develop and deliver their passion and expertise to the world so they can have the time, freedom and lifestyle they want. He has co-authored two best-selling books, one with Brian Tracy and another with Steve Forbes. Josh is an Emmy award-winning executive producer of "Visioneer: The Peter Diamandis Story" and "The Rebound," a documentary on the Miami Heat wheelchair basketball team. Josh has appeared as a guest expert on NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox, and his biography was picked up by the E channel. He is a contributor to Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, Businessinsider.com and Forbes.com. Learn more at joshfelber.com.