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Unpaid Internships: Are They Really Worth It?

When you find yourself unemployed, it’s tempting to be lured into doing an unpaid internship. On the face of it, companies are reaching out a kind hand, helping you back on your feet, helping you boost your CV. However, the face of internships has drastically changed since the recent global recession. Internships used to be a form of (paid) apprenticeship with a good chance of securing a job at the end. In more recent times, however, they have become more of a last resort for the long-term unemployed or an easy way for savvy employers to get free labour. Internships are increasingly displacing real jobs, particularly in low-skilled areas where it’s not too inconvenient to have a high turnaround of staff. An example of this could be a busy office where there are a handful of full-time employees.

What better way to increase the efficiency of the office than to ‘hire’ (not pay) interns for cycles of six months to a year? These interns could do the easiest bits of work, work which doesn’t take much training, such as, say, photocopying, answering the phone, and responding to emails. This is a great way to enhance a company’s performance without actually having to pay anyone. And yes, this really does happen. Yes, this is deemed to be acceptable, and many companies do this because the employer taking on an intern is seen to be contributing to the community by helping unemployed people experience the working world.

Let’s look at Ireland’s Social Welfare Scheme known as Jobbridge for a moment. Nicknamed by sceptics as ‘Scambridge’, the title of this scheme alone is highly deceptive. It suggests that undertaking an internship with them is building a bridge, providing a pathway to securing that first alluring full-time job. When you actually view the internship postings however (see footnote 1), you will see that many employers are taking advantage of the fact that people can’t get a job by posting low-skilled internships such as ‘Sales Person’, ‘Retail Assistant’ and even a ‘Kitchen Assistant’. It would be one thing if the internships were part-time, but the Jobbridge regulations insist that while you are doing an internship you have to work a forty hour week.

Now, the ‘benefit’ of doing an internship with Jobbridge is that you get an extra 50 euro in your Jobseeker’s Allowance. The standard rate for Jobseeker’s Allowance in the Republic of Ireland is currently 188 euro/week (140 pounds stg.). Add onto this 50 euro: 238 euro (177.27 pounds stg. ) for a 40 hour working week. Let’s divide that to find out the hourly wage, shall we? 238/40= a not-so-generous 5.95 euro (4.43 pounds stg.) per hour. This is much less than minimum wage. Worse still, if you just sat at home applying for paid jobs and didn’t work one hour you’d still get 188 euro of that sum. So if we’re going to be super technical about it, you’re being ‘paid’ 50 euro (37.24 pounds stg.) for 40 hours work.

The posting of many unskilled internship positions and the general attitude that people are so desperate to get work they’ll do anything has given rise to a vast number of Jobbridgecritics. There is even an entire website devoted to the abolishment of this government scheme (see footnote 2). The main purpose of the website is to sign a petition to end Jobbridge and replace it with a RealJobs programme, thought up by the organisation itself (yes, Jobbridge has inspired enough venom to cultivate the forming of this group). I can’t say I blame them.

For those of you who are thinking about doing an internship, my advice is: not to, unless it’s paid. I wouldn’t be saying this so strongly if unpaid internships actually helped people get a job. If this were the case, an unpaid internship would be a necessary nuisance. However, statistics contradict the popular idea that internships get you any closer to landing your first actual paid job. Just look at these figures talked about in Rachel Burger’s ‘Why your Unpaid Internship Makes You Less Employable’ (see footnote 3):

‘The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a recent survey that questioned the correlation between internships and full employment upon graduation.The findings were astonishing. Hiring rates for those who had chosen to complete an unpaid internship (37%) were almost the same for those who had not completed any internship at all (35%). Students who had any history of a paid internship, on the other hand, were far more likely (63%) to secure employment.What’s even more astonishing is the pay disparity between those with paid, unpaid, and no internships. Those with unpaid internships tended to take lower-paying jobs than those with no internship experience whatsoever ($35,721 and $37,087, respectively). Students with paid internships far outpaced their peers with an average $51,930 salary.’

You would expect to see a much greater difference in the percentage between those who undertake an unpaid internship and those who don’t do one at all. Those percentages are much too similar to even suggest that unpaid internships are worthy undertakings. It might be American figures, but the principle is the same: just because you’ve found yourself unemployed doesn’t mean you have to do unneccessary things and feel worthless about yourself by doing unpaid work. Moreover, the results highlight the fact that paid internships are the way to go. This article isn’t berating all internships, just unpaid ones. If you can’t get a paid one, don’t do one.

Finally, here are some tips to know whether or not your current internship is actually worth it:

1. Are you doing an internship in something which requires specific skills? This one is on you, intern. Never do an internship in an unskilled job (entry level retail and catering jobs, for example; job titles such as sales assistant and waitress). I guarantee you this will not do much to your Resume and you won’t be kept on once the busy period is over.

2. Do you find yourself being landed with mundane jobs and not really learning anything you thought you would? Did you really start an internship to use a printer/make coffee/ wipe tables/ whatever it may be?

3. Are there other interns at the place you’re working? How many? Do interns represent a large proportion of the staff? If yes, then you’re working for a company who is taking advantage of the free nature of internships. A company who genuinely needs an intern will only hire one or two, thereby increasing the chances of being able to afford to add them to the payroll at the end of the internship.

4. Finally, why are you doing the internship? Are you just doing it to do something? So no one can accuse you of being lazy? These are terrible reasons for doing an internship. It’s supposed to be a stepping stone to your career, not a way to pass the time. If you want to pass the time, download a series to watch or something. Again, you’re not actually doing anything for your career by spending six months to a year doing something which is either completely irrelevant or only vaguely relevant to your career goals.

Learn to value yourself. As Rachel Burger writes, ‘You are worth more than chronic volunteer work. Don’t fall for the unpaid internship trap.’

by Gillian Rixey
(Gillian is a PHD qualified freelance writer and scholar born in Ireland but now residing in the United States.)