Unpaid internships: are they worth it?
Work experience placements or internships have increasingly become an established stepping-stone to employment for students and graduates starting their careers. However, some internships are unpaid, particularly in sectors such as the media. So how do you decide whether an unpaid internship is a valuable opportunity or a waste of time that could be better spent earning some much-needed cash?
The National Council for Work Experience has produced the following guidelines to help you decide whether an unpaid internship is worth your while:
- Discuss the purpose of the internship and clarify expectations from the start.
- Ensure the placement is valuable – does it give insight into a particular industry? Will it improve certain skills or clarify career aspirations?
- Discuss the possibilities of any future paid work with the employer, pointing out the skills that you have gained during the internship.
- Re-consider the value of the internship if it ceases to supply useful contacts and training opportunities.
- Everyone has a choice and if the balance between valuable work experience tips into exploitation then it is up to you to decide whether to continue or not.
The hallmarks of a great internship with a graduate employer
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has produced some best practice guidelines for employers, Internships that Work, which make the following recommendations about internships:
- Interns should be recruited openly, in the same way as other employees.
- Interns should be given as much responsibility and diversity in their work as possible.
- Interns should be allowed time off to attend job interviews.
- Interns should have a proper induction.
- Organisations should allocate a specific individual to supervise interns, mentor them, and conduct a formal performance review to evaluate the success of their time with the organisation.
- On completion of the internship, organisations should provide interns with a reference letter.
The law on unpaid internships
The CIPD guidelines explain that the rules for the national minimum wage (NMW) apply if the arrangements are such that the intern counts as a worker rather than a volunteer.
The guidance says, ‘If someone is expected to undertake ‘work’ for any organisation, they are entitled to be paid the NMW – even if there is no written contract in place. However, the issue of whether an intern classes as a ‘worker’ is made more complicated by the fact that, in some circumstances, they could instead be classed as ‘volunteers’ (who are under no obligation to perform work, have no contract or formal arrangement and have no expectation of and do not receive any reward for the work they do besides having their expenses reimbursed), in which case the NMW legislation does not apply.’
There is a specific exemption in the NMW legislation for students undertaking work as part of a university course, such as a work placement year during a sandwich course, and there are also different rules for people working for charities.
The CIPD recommends that, as a minimum, reasonable travel expenses for interns should be covered and suggests that there is a strong case for paying a bursary or salary that is equal to or better than the NMW, particularly if the internship lasts for three months or more.
The Government-backed Graduate Talent Pool, a recent initiative aimed at helping graduates find work, advises employers to take account of the NMW rules before offering an unpaid internship, and adds: ‘It will then be for graduates to decide whether the benefits of taking up the internship outweigh the fact that it is unpaid.’
As increasing numbers of employers, careers advisers and placement tutors have sought guidance on whether internships should be paid, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has stressed that an intern’s entitlement to the NMW depends on the nature of the working arrangements, not on what the internship or job is called.