The ultimate guide to paid vs unpaid internships

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6 min read
· Posted on
September 24, 2020
by Yvonne Jooste

The great internship debate

During the last decade or so, we have seen a shift in public opinion when it comes to unpaid internships. The narrative has changed somewhat – where unpaid internships were, in general, regarded as valuable experiential learning opportunities, they are now viewed more critically and in many instances contextualised as exploitative. Through increased awareness of the right to equality and workers’ rights issues, many young people are now rejecting the pressure to work for no wages to gain experience.

Intern activism has, therefore, had concrete effects on altering public discourse about unpaid internships and on informing government policy reform in countries like the UK and Canada. And while the importance of highlighting workers’ rights issues and addressing unfair working conditions cannot be denied, the question of unpaid v paid internships are complex as they revolve around issues of law, economic benefit, individual benefit and definition. 

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Therefore, whilst there are most definitely companies and organisations that are guilty of exploiting interns (by, for example, using unpaid internships as opportunities for free labour), all unpaid internships cannot simply be described or perceived as “working for free”.

Of course, depending on who you ask, the question of paid v unpaid internships can elicit some passionate and opposite responses. For those who have benefited from an unpaid internship arrangement, the answer is straightforward – they would not be where they are today if it was not for their internship. The experience they gained from it in a competitive labour market far outweighed the disadvantages of being penniless for a short period of time. For these people, their internship truly represented a defining point in their lives and careers and the issue of payment, therefore, becomes far less important or relevant.

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For others, there is this reality – they simply cannot afford to not be paid and a paid internship ensures equity of opportunity, meaning that valuable opportunities will not only be afforded to those who come from financially comfortable contexts (and that have families that can subsidise their living expenses) but also to those students or young people that come from far less advantaged backgrounds. For people who feel internships should be paid, the issue, therefore, comes down to equality of opportunity and the fact that work that benefits a company or an organisation should be paid work.

In this short guide, we help you unpack the issue of paid v unpaid internships, so that you have all the facts and are able to make a well-informed decision. 

Weighing up the positives and the negatives

As mentioned above, the issue of paid v unpaid, is complex. A very useful starting point is to look at what an internship actually is. A good working definition is the following: 

“Internships provide clinical or practical job experience and helps people transfer their academic learning into real work environments. Internships are both work and learning experiences”.

Therefore, the value exchange in the case of an internship is different. An intern’s work is not only rewarded with or in exchange for money (if it is a paid internship). Rather, the exchange involves learning – the type of learning and experience that can only usually be acquired through working within a field, company, organisation or industry. 

In return for an intern’s work and efforts, the provider of the internship offers gaining practical and hands-on experience, insight into the workings of a field or industry, the learning of new skills, general guidance, and the transferring of knowledge. This is why many people see an internship as an extension of one’s education, rather than purely a job opportunity. 

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Therefore, the determining factor when it comes to considering any internship (paid or unpaid) shouldn’t be and cannot be money or payment. It rather depends on a variety of factors. What is more, even when internships are paid internships, the payment will seldomly amount to a life-changing amount of money. Further, when more emphasis is placed on the work or worker part of an internship, the learning experience might be minimised. In other words, in the context of a well-designed unpaid internship, the employer being aware that there is no monetary reward, will usually ensure a real learning environment thereby also ensuring an intern gains actual experience and that there is indeed a value exchange.

With that being said, it is important to remember that the value of an internship will and should entirely depend on an individual’s goals and circumstances. You should take the following factors into account when considering any internship in order to make sure that it is the right choice for you.

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  1. INTERNSHIP DURATION. It becomes much easier to justify an unpaid internship of shorter duration. For example, 3 months of gaining insight and experience can easily be justified or offset against the idea of no payment, whilst 12 months or longer becomes a much more serious commitment. 
  2. INTERNSHIP LOCATION. What are the travel costs and living expenses involved? Will you need to relocate which will make things more expensive or is the internship close to home? On the other hand, is it an internship abroad, which means the added benefits of travel, exposure to a different culture and, therefore, a much broader learning experience? The location of the internship will also determine laws on minimum wage and other labour regulations. Some of these regulations can also make it easier to obtain an unpaid internship as opposed to a paid internship. 
  3. INTERNSHIP ORGANISATION/COMPANY. What is the potential company or organisation all about? Who are they in their field or industry? Research their history, their goals, and their culture. What type of learning experience do you think they can offer? What would their name mean on your resume or CV? What type of practical experience can the company or organisation expose you to? Do they seek to make the type of difference you are willing to align yourself with? Further, are they a not-for profit or NGO? – in which case most of their funds will understandably go to their core work.
  4. INTERNSHIP STRUCTURE. Are there clearly defined duties and responsibilities, working hours? Do you know upfront what to expect and what is expected from you? Is it clear from your dealings with the organisation or company that they have a well-designed internship programme, with a history of dealing with interns? 
  5. PERSONAL PREFERENCE. How does the internship programme fit in with your expectations? Is it for academic credit or non-credit? How does it align with your future goals or the picture you have created for your future? What can it mean for your own enrichment? Know your reasons for wanting to do an internship. It is good to want to gain experience, but what type of experience and where? Why and how will a particular internship help you get where you want to be? If you do get accepted onto an internship, it is important to make sure you obtain the experience that you know you need.
  6. INTERNSHIP AFFORDABILITY. As mentioned above, it is only when one is in a relative position of privilege that an internship becomes possible. Even when the internship is a paid internship, very few paid internships pay well enough to cover living expenses. What are the costs involved? How are you able to pay these costs? Affordability is an important consideration. Is it an investment that you can make at the moment? Or does it require more time? Is the investment that you plan to make worth it? Further, you should keep a record of the experience you do gain to demonstrate your investment in yourself in a way future employers can see will benefit them.
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The above factors that you should consider hopefully makes it clear that an internship is not necessarily “bad” because it is unpaid, and all internships aren’t equal. It is important to do your research and to thoroughly weigh up all the positives and negatives. Understand the costs and time involved, know your reasons for wanting to do an internship, understand the organisation or company, and familiarise yourself with their programmes and values.

Apart from understanding the specific definition of an internship and its unique value exchange as well as the factors to consider, it is important to also understand the general individual and societal benefits of internships. 

The individual, economic and societal benefits of an internship

Individual benefits

There are many articles that discuss the individual benefits of an internship in detail. These benefits range from practical experience to networking, from applying learnt theory to learning new skills. It also includes gaining an insider’s perspective into a primary field that can help people decide how to move forward in their careers and having a competitive edge over other job seekers. Plenty of highly successful people you’ve probably heard of managed to launch their careers through internships.

However, internships (paid and unpaid) also have more general benefits. In the context of the shifting debate mentioned above, it becomes important to mention these benefits. Internships can greatly benefit employers and therefore the economy in general. 

Employer and economic benefits

Unpaid internships specifically can provide numerous benefits to employers in tougher economic times. Employers can use internships as a cost-effective recruiting strategy. 

The ability to screen trainees while getting acquainted with their quality of work and performance is valuable to employers. It can facilitate their decision-making process on who they want to possibly extend an offer to for future employment.

In this way, employers can convert interns to full-time employees seamlessly, which reduces any training-related costs. It has also been demonstrated that employees who start out as interns are more likely to stay within the company than those who did not start as interns.

Interns also bring energy, perspective, and fresh ideas to employers - especially in the technology sector. What is more, internships also make it possible for employers to have the opportunity to contribute to the molding of the lives of students/interns in conjunction with the academic institution the students/interns attend or are graduating from.

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Benefits to academic institutions

Universities and colleges also benefit from internships since their student interns tend to bring their real-world experience back to the classroom. As investopedia.com explains, this interaction helps keep courses relevant and curriculum up-to-date with the current trends. This continual improvement results in a richer learning experience for everyone.

In other words, successfully-arranged internships that establish a path for graduates to employment validate the university's curriculum in a working environment. They also improve graduation rates and may accelerate corporate fundraising efforts.

Further, internships provide more valuable learning experiences than case studies and lectures and connect faculty to current trends within various professional fields. The result is:

  • More competitive and employable graduates
  • Increased program credibility
  • Student excellence
  • Stronger bonds with alumni
  • Strengthen links to the connected industry

The academic institution, therefore, becomes more attractive to prospective students. New students will often choose a program with a proven track record of converting graduates into employees.

Ethical guidelines  

As mentioned above, there have been and most certainly still are instances where internships are exploitative. Some employers use it as a way to free labour, cycling through interns without the intent of either employing them or creating an educational and learning environment.

At Bridging Gaps, we provide customised, professional internship programmes, volunteer projects and educational courses in the dynamic city of Cape Town. All our programmes meet ethical standards and are made to meet the specific interests and goals of an individual. In other words, we do the legwork for you. 

(We have a demonstrated and established history with a number of companies and organisations in a large variety of fields, thereby ensuring that a person’s internship experience meets their expectations and personal needs within an educational and learning context at a company or organisation that are exceptional at what they do.)

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However, whether you use an internship provider like us or not, the guidelines below can help ensure that you do not choose an unethical internship programme, company or organisation. Some of these guidelines have been incorporated in legislation and other regulatory frameworks.

  • The experience with the company or organisation should emphasise a unique job or career-related activity that you cannot necessarily otherwise obtain outside of the internship.
  • The organisation or company should inform company managers and supervisors of the objectives of the internship program and the presence of the intern. In other words, the programme should be well-established. 
  • The company or organisation should generally provide a company or worksite orientation that clarifies internal rules, operating procedures, and internship expectations.
  • The internship, even if it includes involvement in the working operations of the employer, should in many ways be similar to training in an educational environment.
  • The internship experience should mainly be for the benefit of the intern.
  • The intern should not displace regular employees but should work under close supervision with the existing staff.

Equal access to opportunity and socio-economic equality

As mentioned above, intern activism has highlighted the fact that unpaid internships are not equally available to everyone. This can exacerbate socio-economic inequality as people from disadvantaged backgrounds might not be able to make use of an internship opportunity, especially in the case of unpaid internships. 

Activism with regards to internships have been immensely important in highlighting exploitative practices and ensuring legislation and regulation around internships. This makes the internship economy safer and fairer for everyone. 

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The issue of equal access to opportunity is of the utmost importance to address. However, highlighting those practices that perpetuate inequality should not translate into the stance that all unpaid internships are undeniably exploitative and reserved for the privileged. It is important to remember the following:

  • Because of the core work of some organisations (not for profits, NGOs etc.), they cannot necessarily afford to pay interns. Not being able to provide unpaid internships will deprive some of these organisations of much needed help and will deprive individuals willing to help of much wanted and meaningful experience.
  • Some people, even though they may not be able to afford to do an internship at a particular time, will enter the job market for the amount of time needed to be able to save money to later complete a sought-after internship. In other words, people complete internships for many different reasons and some work towards being able to complete them as they feel a specific programme or experience is worth it. 
  • As mentioned above, internships are about learning, albeit through working, and should in some cases be regarded as an extension of one’s education or the furthering of education. Although not everyone is lucky or privileged enough to be able to embark on tertiary education or getting a degree or a diploma after school, as a society we still value education and we, in general, advise people to further educate themselves if they can and make the most of the opportunity they have been afforded. The same could be said for unpaid internships.

Conclusion

The long and short of paid v unpaid internships can be surmised as follows:

  1. Although there has been somewhat of a shift with regards to public discourse around unpaid internships, an unpaid internship still holds invaluable opportunities for graduates and other young people.
  2. Experience is and will remain a key differentiator when it comes to employability. It is important to obtain as much as you can. The demand for experience by employers may not seem fair - but there are millions of people seeking employment in an increasingly global job market and this creates competition.
  3. Ultimately, the decision of accepting an internship (paid or unpaid) is an individual’s choice made on its expected benefit.
  4. It is important to know your worth and to expect fair treatment within a working or employment environment. 
  5. When considering an internship, understand that it is not an employment opportunity, but rather an opportunity to learn and gain experience through working. 
  6. When considering an internship, understand its unique value exchange and the fact that it should be seen as an extension of education and training.
  7. Issues regarding equity of opportunity doesn’t mean that unpaid internships in themselves are problematic. Rather, it highlights the importance of making the most of any opportunity you are given.
  8. Be aware of exploitative practices and companies. Do your research thoroughly and make your choice based on the facts. 
  9. Understand the short and long term costs, opportunity costs and benefits.
  10. An internship paid or unpaid is necessary when it is used as a trajectory for a person to reach his or her goal of obtaining gainful employment or meaningful experience in his or her chosen career or life path.
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