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Surviving Unpaid Internships

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It's a tough time to be an intern at the moment. Though the number and range of internships in the UK have increased considerably in the last few years, a staggering one in three interns are working for nothing. Zilch. Nada.

A report by the TUC warned that many employers have sought to take advantage of students' desperation to find work in the economic downturn and see interns as a useful source of free labour (though often this is breaking UK minimum wage and employment law).

Though an unpaid internship may be feasible for a lucky handful of students, for most of us the prospect is an impossible and undesirable one; and rightly so. True, you will be gaining a great deal from doing an internship, but it works both ways - as an intern you are contributing time, knowledge and skills to the company and so deserve to be treated as an employee. In fact, the prospect of a company (NGOs and charities excluded) deciding not to pay interns raises numerous flags for me personally, as I'd worry about the value and respect placed upon any intern who ended up there.

But if you can swing it financially, is an unpaid internship worth it? Probably not.

Unpaid internships don't do as much for you in the job market as paid ones do; according to the 2011 Student Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, paid interns spent more of their time on professional duties, while unpaid interns were given clerical ones. 61% of paid interns working at for-profit companies received a job offer; only 38% of unpaid interns working at for-profit companies did. And paid interns netted higher starting salaries. "The unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student," NACE concludes.

If you have landed an unpaid internship, and feel that it is too good to pass up, don't despair; there are certain ways to bring down the cost.

  • Firstly, ask that any travel costs you may incur be covered. This should be the least you expect from any internship where you are required to commute to work.
  • Contact your university to see if there are any bursaries/scholarships/financial aid available to cover unpaid internships. Failing that, try contacting your local council or higher education authority to see if any financial aid is offered to students.
  • Live at home - yes, I know this isn't exactly what every intern dreams of, but if needs must then this can be an ideal solution and help you not only to save on rent, but also food and utilities bills.
  • Get a part-time job - but make sure it won't interfere with your internship. Be frank with your boss, and let them know that due to financial constraints you are taking on part-time work.
  • KEEP A BUDGET - I cannot stress this enough. I use Simplibudget, though there are a plethora of similar applications out there. Find one you are comfortable with, and stick to it. Anticipate how much you will need to spend, and don't splurge, however tempting!
  • Leave money for the emergencies - It's always important to have a little bit of cash with you. You never know when you'll have to use the cash for emergencies (new shoes do not count).
  • Before accepting an unpaid internship, think about whether it's really worth it. Do you want to work for a company that values interns so little that it will not even pay you minimum wage? On a more 'political' note, remember that unpaid labour devalues paid labour; in some organisations, interns are being used in lieu of entry-level staff.

Sure, unpaid internships can be fantastic. Many students get university credit, learn a great deal, and then end up with jobs as a result of them - but never, ever, let an employer exploit you. Before you accept an internship, get a clear understanding of your job duties, whether you'll be paid, and what the employer expects of you. Perhaps even more importantly, decide what you want to gain from the internship.

Don't sell yourself short.

For further insight and advice on surviving an internship, visit my Insight Of An Intern blog.