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are unpaid internships worth it

Unpaid internships: are they worth it?

An internship is a great way to get work experience that will strengthen your graduate job applications. But if it’s unpaid, how do you decide whether it’s worth doing?

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 hallmarks of a great internship with a graduate employer

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has produced some best practice guidelines for employers, which can be found in its Internships that Work guide. The guidelines 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 (contributing to your company, has a list of duties and is working set hours) they count as a ‘worker’ and are entitled to be paid National Minimum Wage – even if there is no written contract in place.’

However, the guidance goes on to say, ‘there are a number of circumstances where the NMW does not apply; these include students doing work experience as part of a UK-based further or higher education course; young people of compulsory school age; a volunteer or doing voluntary work; on a government or European programme, or work shadowing.’

The CIPD also recommends that, as a minimum, reasonable travel expenses for interns should be covered.

The Government-backed Graduate Talent Pool, an initiative aimed at helping graduates find work, advises employers to take account of the NMW rules before offering an unpaid internship. An intern’s entitlement to the NMW depends on the nature of the working arrangements, not on what the internship or job is called.

Before deciding whether to undertake an unpaid internship, students and graduates are advised to make sure they know what to expect from it and, in turn, what the employer expects from them. In particular, this includes making sure that the internship will be of value. For example, graduates should consider whether it will provide a good insight into a particular industry, help develop contacts or open up the possibility of paid work with that employer in the future.

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