Unpaid internships: To apply or not to apply?




Internships, often graduation requirements for many marketing, communications, public relations, business and other majors, typically fall into one of two categories: paid or unpaid. The word intern typically connotes unpaid work and while there are rumblings in the professional world on the ethicality of using young professionals as free labor, new professionals looking for job experience to bolster their resumes face a real conundrum when it comes to deciding whether to work for free. I won't tell you what to do, but here are some things to consider while weighing your options.


1. UNPAID INTERNSHIPS ARE IN FACT LEGAL

Laws on unpaid internships varies from state to state in the U.S. but by and large, unpaid internships are in fact legal. However, the primary beneficiary test in the Fair Labor Standards Act spells out seven factors that determine whether an unpaid internship is lawful including the following:

  • There is no expectation of compensation.

  • Legitimate and applicable training is provided.

  • Internship is related to intern's course work and is being used for school credit.

  • Company accommodates intern's academic commitments and honors the academic calendar.

  • Internship period is limited to the period in which it's beneficial for the intern's learning.

  • Intern's work complements, not replaces or displaces, work of full-time employees.

  • No expectation of a secured full-time position at the conclusion of the internship.

The bottom line is that unpaid internships should still be beneficial to you and your career. If you feel like you're being taken advantage of then either leave or consider reporting the company to the U.S. Department of Labor.


2. CONSIDER WHERE YOU ARE IN YOUR CAREER

My first internship in the public relations industry was unpaid at boutique agency specializing in entertainment and consumer marketing. I did receive school credit and they paid for my daily parking at the hourly lot I had to use. It was my first-ever position and real life experience in the field so it felt like the right move for me. I commuted from Malibu to Sherman Oaks and used lots of gas, but I built essential skills for my eventual career in PR. I will say, this was the only unpaid position I ever accepted. If you're just starting out you're probably asking yourself questions like "Is it worth it?" and "Will this benefit my career?" Unpaid internships may not be all that bad. Typically, small companies use unpaid interns because they can't afford a full-time entry level employee. Many times, they're just as desperate for extra help as you may be for work experience so they'll have you do more with less degrees of separation between you and more senior people at the agency or company. This is an amazing opportunity for hands-on experience. That being said, not all entry level internships are unpaid. Larger companies with bigger budgets and brand reputation concerns may very well pay minimum wage. At the end of the day, experience and company recognition are good things — just remember the difference between experience and exploitation.


3. SET THE PACE FOR YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL

Internships, unlike full-time positions rarely offer applicants the chance to negotiate pay, especially unpaid ones. Paid internships typically opt for minimum wage, but the difference between unpaid and paid can set the pace for your future earning potential. For example, if you make it known that your previous position was unpaid, a future employer is likely to give a lowball salary offer knowing that you can only go up. However, if you decide to only take paid positions, you might find some negotiating power to make more than just the bare minimum. In any situation and regardless of whether you're applying for an internship or full-time job, always know you're worth and don't be afraid to aim high. The worst they can say is no. And if you're wanting a promotion but don't know how to bring it up, this might help.

Internships, unlike full-time positions rarely offer applicants the chance to negotiate pay, especially unpaid ones. Paid internships typically opt for minimum wage, but the difference between unpaid and paid can set the pace for your future earning potential. For example, if you make it known that your previous position was unpaid, a future employer is likely to give a lowball salary offer knowing that you can only go up. However, if you decide to only take paid positions, you might find some negotiating power to make more than just the bare minimum.