Unpaid Internships: Are They Worth Your Time?
Internship season is upon us! The beginning of February is the perfect time to look for a spring placement, which means you need to act quickly if you want to be working this semester. In your search for the perfect job, you’ll probably find a decent amount of unpaid internships...but are they even worth your time?

Obviously, getting paid for the work you do is ideal. However, this won’t always be possible, especially if you’re working with a non-profit or have no previous experience. Below, our experts evaluate the pros of unpaid internships. Read on to discover if they’re the right fit for you. 

Work is work

As Natesa, a Hiring Expert at Textron Inc., explains, “Typically, recruiters are looking to see if you’ve had experiences that will transfer to a potential role. A lack of formal internship experience usually won’t hurt your chances of getting a job, as long as you can display the “work” that you did and discuss how those experiences relate to the role for which you are applying.”1 Work is work, whether it’s paid or not. 

We all have to start somewhere. If you have no prior paid experience, it’s highly likely that your first internship will be unpaid, and that’s okay. What’s important is getting that first position on your resume, showing other companies that you have the experience they’re looking for. Having an unpaid internship on your resume makes it all the more likely you’ll get paid in your next internship. 

That said, many students - especially in STEM fields - don’t have the time during college to hold an off-campus internship. However, many of these students perform research in a lab to aid a professor, and that’s still a valuable work experience. It is perfectly acceptable to include this research position on your resume under your ‘work experiences’ section because even though it was for school and likely unpaid, it likely created many transferable skills (just as any internship would have). When placed in the same resume space as other jobs, future employers have no way of knowing which of your experiences were unpaid; to them, everything just looks like professional experience.

In fact, as Lina, a Hiring Expert at ADP explains, “Although formal relevant internships are typically preferred, having any experience, even if you’re not paid for it, is still a good experience to have – especially if the courses and field research you completed is relevant to the role you’re applying for.”2

Build your skillset

The entire point of an internship is to gain experience you didn’t previously have. If an unpaid internship is able to teach you new skills, it’s still a valuable position. 

As Ashlyn, a Hiring Expert at Worthington Industries, puts it, “If you find that the unpaid position will get you experience that you haven't been able to get elsewhere, I would say taking one would be beneficial. It is important to understand the position and make sure that it does align with the skill gaps that you're trying to fill.”3

Even when weighing an unpaid internship against a paid job that’s unrelated to your field, it’s probably still better to take the internship. Steve, a Hiring Expert at Caterpillar Inc., explains his reasoning behind this: “My recommendation would be to pursue the unpaid internship that will give you experience in your preferred field. The experience gained through an internship should be your main focus as it is this that will help you obtain that full-time job upon your graduation. Furthermore, the compensation that you would receive through a paid internship would likely not be enough to make a significant dent in your education debt. However, with the proper internship experience, the chances will increase of you getting that full-time position in which the compensation is significant enough to truly assist in paying down your debt.”4

Get paid anyway
If you cannot make it through the term without a paycheck, we understand. However, that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice an internship; there are other ways to make money at the same time. Many schools have scholarship stipends exactly for unpaid internships. Speak with your career center or financial aid office to see if this applies to you. 

It also might be worth considering looking for a part-time job on top of the internship. Most unpaid internships take up about 10-15 hours a week, and even with 12-16 hours of class on top of that, there’s still space for one more small block of time. A few hours a week spent in a restaurant, in retail, or in an on-campus job can provide the cash flow needed to keep you fed. In your part-time search, try to preference an on-campus job, as most are flexible, understand that you probably have homework to do, and keep regular work-day hours to keep your evenings and weekends free. 

While it’s true that having a part-time job and an internship along with classes will be hard work, it paves the way for you to have a better future. 

Although you might not directly make money off an unpaid internship, the benefits of new experience and transferable skills are a form of payment in themselves. Just remember that while things might seem difficult right now, everyone else had to start off exactly in the same position, and it’s worth it in the end.  

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