Updated: Jan 13
Did you know that in 2014 nearly half — 46.5% — of internships were unpaid? While many students, and even schools, are scared of unpaid work experience, there's a lot of value in taking unpaid opportunities. As someone who has participated in six internships, some paid and some unpaid, I know firsthand that whether an internship pays or not shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. Unpaid internships are often just as, if not more, rewarding than an internship for pay or for school credit.
For me, the best aspect of unpaid internships is the quality of the mentoring you can get from your supervisors or other employees on your team. As an unpaid intern, companies want to ensure that you are getting real educational and experiential value out of their internship. The result's that you get lots of time to talk with your supervisor about your goals for the internship and more broadly professionally. Even after I have ended previous internships, my old bosses still reach out to me about interesting professional opportunities and even write recommendation letters for my academic and professional applications.
Tangible learning experiences.
Similarly to mentoring, companies will spend time to educate on what you need to know specifically for their internship as well as important topics in your field. Without my unpaid internships, I would've never had access to or the knowledge of training resources such as Google Academy and Hubspot Academy. Without paying you, companies are even more dedicated to providing tangible skills, both to fulfill legal Department of Labor requirements and to provide added value to your internship experience. But be vigilant, if this isn’t the case at your internship, you may have fallen victim to an internship scam.
Real professional training.
Why are you looking for an internship? Often times people say they want to gain experience in a work environment and internships are the best way to do that. You get real training in a real office with real employees. Simply put, internships are the best firsthand experience available to you. Without experience to fill your resume, employers'll be skeptical of your qualifications and abilities to perform well as an employee. Internships can help you flesh out your resume and show real skills that you’ve attained through those experiences.
Job offer potential.
It’s common for companies to send out return offers to previous interns and a lot of the time that’s the sole reason their internship programs exist. Other companies are less dedicated to creating an intern-employee pipeline, but experience at those companies is just as valuable as any other internship. When it comes to the job search, there’s a Catch-22 dilemma: potential employees lack experience for open positions while employers look for someone with more experience than is realistic for an entry-level job. Fergus Hodgson breaks down this issue saying:
“Employers want to make sure they are hiring someone whose skills match the job description, but absent previous experience they have to rely on proxies: education credentials, awards, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, interviews, etc. Even if those all look good, a candidate will likely impose more costs than returns, until he learns his trade...Internship programs are one method the labor market has come up with to solve this information and experience problem. Employees get some amount of time to learn the trade and demonstrate they're worth hiring, be that for the current firm or another in the same field. The internship adds to a résumé and signals that one has acquired work skills (or has at least tried to).”
While unpaid internships can seem like they’re less fruitful in the short-term, they actually do add long-term value to your resume and professional life, making you a better candidate for an entry-level job.
Personally, without unpaid internships I wouldn’t have learned enough about my target career field to choose it, received applicable and tangible experience, or even been hired in my current position! Unpaid internships can be great experiences, so don’t let the lack of pay get to you. For those who can afford to take an unpaid internship, it'll get you closer to your long-term career goals. Don’t forget to sign up for Intern Pursuit and use our platform to find your perfect internship opportunity! All of our employers are dedicated to making sure your unpaid internship is all positive, so check us out!