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Is Your (Illegal) Unpaid Summer Internship Worth It?

Published: Jun 24, 2013

Ever since the decision on the 20th Century Fox intern lawsuit, reactions have mainly fallen into two categories: "WOOHOO, finally!" and "How else are kids supposed to get any experience?!"

No one wants to be taken advantage of. But the big fear is (at least from the perspective of young workers) that the pay requirement will put a cap on how many interns a company can afford to hire. That means fewer spots for those who desperately need experience, and greater competition for those spots.

Luckily (?), that change may still be a ways off. Cultural lag dictates that there will still be many an unpaid internship flying under the radar—and ripe for the taking, if you feel so compelled. The Department of Labor has long had guidelines for what a "legal" unpaid internship is, and companies have flouted those guidelines for years. So it's hard to believe things will change overnight.

But is an unpaid internship ever really justified? Is an exploitative run with a company  better than a gaping hole on your resume?

The decision, at the end of the day, lies with the prospective intern. Whether he or she can afford to go unpaid, whether it's worth it in the long run, whether there are any other opportunities available due to geographic location or a tough field... these are all factors that need to be taken into account, and they'll vary from person to person.

But there are a few things that all good internships have in common. And if you're about to take one that's unpaid, you should probably find out if it can do or be the following:

1. The internship fills a specific skills gap on your resume

Recent studies have found that general degrees, whether they be "English" or "business" are equally ineffective at securing full time work.

If an unpaid internship offers you the opportunity to hone a specific skill ( for example, computer programs you'll need for design work, or fact checking experience for work in publishing, or bookkeeping for finance majors), it may be directly beneficial to your chances of getting hired and thus worth your while.

A good rule of thumb: skills you'd consider taking a course in to improve your employment options that can be obtained through an internship are valuable.

2. The internship's with dream company or department

Sometimes, a foot in the door really is worth your time and unpaid efforts. If you're extremely passionate about a company, a mentor you'd get to work with, or a certain kind of work (that you could otherwise not find paid work in), go for it.

Depending on your field, this might be an opportunity that truly might not come paid. (Google internships notwithstanding). If you cringe at the thought of missing out on the break, don't. If only to deglamorize your image of what it would be like to work for Your Dream Company. It can be just as helpful to learn what you don't want as it is to learn what you do.

3. The program follows Department of Labor Guidelines

In essence, this means that the work you'll be doing is more for your education than for the direct benefit of the company. It also means that the role will be well structured and managed.

You can see the full guidelines here, but two good signs: 1. your interviewer can tell you what you'll learn over the course of the internship, or at least what you'll do day to day, and 2. there's a person in charge of directing and mentoring you. These are usually indicators of a structured "educational" environment—as opposed to a dark corner where you'll empty trash and largely be ignored. At least until someone needs you to run out for a sandwich.

What would it take for you to sign on for an unpaid internship?

Do you think they're generally a fair deal or exploitative? Let us know in the comments!

--Cathy Vandewater,

Read More:
5 Interview Questions Investment Banking Interns Need to Nail
Law Students: Get the Most Out of Your Summer Internship
Are Unpaid Internships Fair?


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