Competition for internship placements can be pretty fierce. Top companies like Google and Facebook attract thousands more applicants than they have positions for. It’s easy to see why; having a name like that on your resume provides a big leg up in job searching. Unpaid internships may seem like an easy way to get your foot in the door, and on a path to a career in technology, but there are many reasons why this may not be the case. Fields like computer science and engineering are much richer in opportunity than other fields, like journalism, or fashion, where the competition is incredibly high and the demand for interns is very low. For this reason, unpaid internships are much less common in technology fields than in journalism, for example, but they still exist.
Benefits of doing an unpaid internship
It might be easier to land a position
If the internship is unpaid, there will probably be less applicants to the job, since some people can’t afford to accept it, and others who might be able to afford it probably wouldn’t want to work for free. If there’s less competition to fight off, it can dramatically increase your odds of landing the position. Because of this, you might have more choices in which employer you want to work for.
Unlike college, it’s a free learning experience
The average college student pays thousands of dollars a year in tuition and textbooks. With an unpaid internship, you don’t have to pay tuition in order to learn skills that will likely be more relevant to the real world than college. Also, you’ll have some work experience to put on your resume that may help you get a paid internship in the future, or a full time job. Obviously, you may have living expenses as well to worry about, and maybe even relocation expenses if you don’t live in the area where your internship is.
You might get college credit
Sometimes your college will allow you to receive academic credit in exchange for doing an internship. This could reduce the number of courses you have to take to complete your degree program, and could even help reduce your tuition expenses if your institution doesn’t require you to pay extra for these credits. However, if you do have to pay for the credits, then you’re basically paying to do your internship. Make sure to check with your school to see what the requirements are for receiving credits, and whether your employer is willing to participate.
Drawbacks of doing an unpaid internship
You don’t get paid
Bet you never expected this one, did you? But even though it doesn’t cost you anything for the privilege of working, you may still have living expenses to pay for. Rent, food, entertainment, and transportation are all expenses you may incur, so you’ll need to make a budget before accepting an unpaid position to make sure you understand the full cost over your internship term.
Prestigious companies tend not do unpaid internships
Don’t expect to be able to get an internship at Google by offering to work for free. Unpaid internships are far more common among smaller startups than established companies. There are a few reasons for this. First, although a prestigious company could probably still get tons of applicants even for an unpaid position, they would almost certainly receive massive public backlash for doing this. Second, paying interns leads to more competition for the positions, and allows these companies to recruit better talent. Pay for interns can actually be pretty spectacular at top companies, who are looking for the best of the best. Third, startups are usually strapped for resources, and may not have the money to hire paid interns (or hire more employees in general). Established companies don’t have to do this, since they either generate enough revenue to pay employees, or have enough funding to continue operating. Fourth, companies tend to use internship programs as an extended recruiting pipeline, to get access to top candidates before they have more experience, so they view this as a long term investment. For startups, it isn’t always possible to expend their limited resources on long-term bets like untested candidates. Thus, any company offering an unpaid internship will not give you an advantage through name recognition alone.
The company might be in trouble
Many cash-strapped companies offer unpaid internships as a way of getting access to employees they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. Unpaid internships could be a sign that the company is on unstable financial footing. Do you want to take the risk that your employer could go bust before or during your internship? Also, if finances are a problem, they likely won’t be able to afford to bring you on full time either.
Might not be doing as interesting work
If an employer isn’t willing to pay you for your time, they probably don’t expect to get enough value from you to make a return on their investment. Companies that pay their interns have an incentive to give you more important tasks that will help them in a meaningful way. Companies that don’t may be more willing to give menial tasks or even busywork because they don’t have to use your talents as efficiently. Conversely, because they don’t have to pay you for your time, some companies might be happy to exploit you into working longer hours. If you’ve valued your time as worth nothing, they might see it the same way.
It’s kind of a legal gray area
Unpaid internships are legal in most jurisdictions, provided they meet certain conditions. In the US, the Department of Labor specifies a series of factors that determine whether you are considered an “employee” for the purposes of labor standards. If you are not considered an “employee” you won't have access to the same legal protections as regular employees, with regards to harassment, discrimination, or employee benefits. If you are unsure whether an unpaid internship is legal, consult a legal professional. If you are currently enrolled in a post-secondary institution, the career services department will likely be able to assist you here too.
It hurts other prospective interns
Working for free undercuts the rest of the labor market. When enough people are willing to work for nothing, it incentivizes employers to continue offering unpaid positions. Also, since some people may not be able to afford taking unpaid internships, it can limit the opportunities available to the poorest prospective interns.
The only time it might be worthwhile to consider an unpaid internship is if you’re really desperate for some relevant work experience, and money won’t be an issue. So perhaps if you’re a freshman in college, and it would be your first internship, it might be beneficial to you, in certain fields. In a hot field like computer science, it really isn’t worth doing an unpaid internship, since there are plenty of work opportunities out there, and worst comes to worst, you can just build your own side-project. In areas like journalism and the arts, unpaid internships are, unfortunately, often the only way to break into the industry, without having connections, and get a shot at a full time job. Still, unpaid internships can carry a lot of risk, and might not provide as good of a learning opportunity as you might expect. So before you decide to take an unpaid internship, think long and hard about whether it’s really necessary, and what it might cost you.