Great Paid vs. Unpaid Internships Debate

The majority of interns are paid — all 60% of them. As of this writing, the average salary of paid interns in the US amounts to $18.86 per hour, which is equivalent to $805 per week or $3,114 per month.

Since internships usually typically last for only 8 to 10 weeks, paid interns in the land do not get a lot throughout the duration of the program.

The stark difference becomes clearer when their pay is contrasted against the average weekly salary of an employed individual ($1,070) or the average annual salary of a Fortune 500 CEO ($15.9 million).

Meanwhile, unpaid interns take home nothing but a bunch of intangible things.

And this brings us to this burning question on the minds of many college students who are about to embark on an internship program: are paid internships better than unpaid internships?

Well, the quick answer to that is not all the time.

paid vs unpaid internships

Paid Vs. Unpaid Internships: What’s the Difference?

The primary difference between a paid internship and an unpaid internship is that the former compensates the intern with money for his or her time and effort. On the other hand, an unpaid intern is usually compensated with just college credits and some other perks, most of which are also enjoyed by paid interns.

Many things are shared by paid and unpaid internships in common, ranging from providing interns with real-world experience related to their studies to allowing them to network and build a portfolio.

But there’s something that completely sets them apart: as their names suggest, one is paid, while the other isn’t.

Knowing the key differences between the two allows you to determine which type of internship is right for you.

Just because you could use some money, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that a paid internship can work to your utmost advantage.

Or simply because an unpaid internship is easier to get into doesn’t right away mean that it’s something you should grab.

Paid or not, it’s a must to make sure that the internship program will provide you with the experience that can help you with your college and professional careers — not all internships are worth the time of a college student like you.

unpaid internship benefits

Benefits of Unpaid Internships

Just because you don’t get paid doesn’t mean right away that an unpaid internship is the worst form of internship.

Paycheck aside, there are a number of perks that come with being an intern who is compensated with all kinds of things except money. And, in most instances, depending on the student’s goal, the downsides pale in comparison with the good things.

In this part of the post, I will talk about some of the benefits associated with unpaid internships, and I’m hoping that they can persuade you to steer clear of an unpaid internship opportunity simply because it isn’t paid.

Related experience

It’s true that 40% of internships in the US are unpaid.

Needless to say, the majority of internships in the land are paid.

But while you may be successful in finding a paid internship since there are plenty of them available, you may have a difficult time coming across one that has something to do with your college major or what you are truly passionate about.

And that is why it’s more likely for you to have an internship in a related field or industry that’s unpaid rather than paid. And the sooner that you can start being an intern, the more valuable experience you can accrue.

What’s really nice about an unpaid internship interrelated with your area of study is that you get to obtain skills that can come in extremely valuable in the classroom and even more so on your resume.

You may not be compensated with dollars today, but it can help you make more of them in the future.

Since an unpaid internship doesn’t come with the stress and pressure intrinsic to its paid equivalent, you can concentrate more on polishing your newly-acquired skills and finishing the program competent and ready to take on the professional world.

Opportunity to explore

A paid internship allows you to make money and gain experience, too. But because you are compensated monetarily, the employer expects you to do the workplace duties and responsibilities you are tasked with diligently.

Due to this, you will have to focus on what you are told to do and revel in whatever you can gain from it.

No such pressure comes with being an unpaid intern — because you are not being paid, your boss won’t laser-focus on you and breathe down your neck.

With fewer constraints compared to paid interns, there’s plenty of room for you to explore a bit and determine which tasks correspond with your personality and interests.

Job shadowing an employee, for instance, allows you to learn something new and figure out whether or not it’s what you want to do for the rest of your career. Or you may attend training courses or conferences to acquire qualifications.

With the prospect of figuring out functions and undertakings in the workplace that suit you the most, being an unpaid intern enables you to learn more about what you really want, which getting an hourly wage may keep you from doing so.

In due course, you will be able to establish a much better career goal that would pay so much better.

Flexible schedule

Since being an unpaid intern does not practically make you an employee who gets paid on a regular basis, your employer won’t require you to work fixed hours for the duration of the contract.

It’s true that most employers are willing to compromise and work with paid interns to set a schedule that accommodates their classes, extracurricular activities and other commitments in their college and personal lives.

However, since they are getting paid, in most instances, interns have to make major sacrifices as far as their everyday schedules go.

Unpaid interns who have hectic timetables rejoice: they usually enjoy flexible internship arrangements!

Because an unpaid internship much less closely resembles traditional employment than its paid counterpart, you tend to have a schedule that’s more compliant with your life outside of the company.

In addition, more often than not, you may also have to work less per day and per contract than a paid intern, saving you from being snowed under with obligations.

Most especially if you have a lot on your plate and you need to make room for an internship program, an unpaid internship may prevent you from risking your college GPA, sacrificing some of your everyday pursuits and losing your marbles.

Credit toward graduation

In place of weekly or monthly salaries, most paid interns are compensated with college credits.

Many high schoolers sit for AP or CLEP exams or dual enroll to earn credits, which allows them to skip introductory-level classes at the postsecondary institutions of their choosing.

As a result of this, the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree can be expedited. What’s more, it can also allow them to save money on college tuition expenses.

Earning college credits is still possible when you’re already in college, and a way to do so is through an internship program.

But don’t just go for any internship available — opt for something that pays in college credit!

Because you are committing to the unpaid internship program by devoting both time and energy to your designated tasks with no monetary amends, it only makes sense that you are compensated by the employer not only with real-world experience but also credits that can be used toward your bachelor’s degree.

Depending on your college’s policy, you may earn anywhere from 1 to 6 credits for being an unpaid intern.

But it’s important to keep in mind that, in some instances, a paid internship may also make you eligible to earn not only a weekly or monthly paycheck for a job well done but also some college credits.

Internship with conceptual words in pieces paper puzzle on black background. Business concept.

Cons of Unpaid Internship

As mentioned earlier, something that sets an unpaid internship apart from a paid internship is that it doesn’t pay.

So, in other words, your time and effort and dedication to carrying out your assigned roles will not be compensated monetarily. Besides that, there are a couple of other downsides associated with partaking in an unpaid internship.

Below, I will talk about some of the cons of unpaid internships — knowing them together with the pros is key to having an idea of whether or not being an unpaid intern is worth being squeezed into your schedule.

Unpaid experience

Perhaps no other downside to paid internships is as noteworthy and upsetting as the fact that interns don’t get compensated monetarily — it’s like doing volunteer work where you don’t take home any pay.

Alas, the problem doesn’t begin and end with not being paid for your time and effort.

In most instances, college students from low-income backgrounds who are doing unpaid internships may have to take on part-time and even full-time jobs to make ends meet since they are not generating money from being interns.

Due to this, particularly with poor time management and organization skills, one or all of their various undertakings might suffer in the process.

Being an unpaid intern at a company whose office is just a couple of blocks away from the dorm is a rare blessing — depending on the location, you may have to shell out money for housing, food, transportation and other expenses.

So, in other words, not only you don’t make money but you also have to pull money out of your own pocket!

Although it’s true that being a paid intern allows you to gain valuable experience in exchange for not getting paid, nothing changes the fact that paid interns get to enjoy it, too, while getting compensated with money.

Not as impressive

Unpaid interns may not be getting paid alright. But at least they get to obtain experience.

But paid interns get to enjoy both experience and monetary compensation, which is why they are often seen by many employers as more competitive than their unrecompensed peers.

So much so that, according to stats, up to 32% of paid internships are said to be more likely to result in full-time employment than unpaid internships.

Graduates who had paid internships tend to receive an average of 1.12 job offers. On the other hand, graduates who had unpaid internships have a tendency to receive an average of 0.85 job offers.

The said figure is not that far from the average job offers graduates who had zero internships usually get: 0.85.

However, it’s not right to think that an unpaid internship won’t bring something positive to your future career.

For instance, since unpaid internships are generally easier to get into than paid ones, you can get a head start in experience- and network-building and credit-earning, which can be a huge plus in the race for employment.

Before you agree to an unpaid internship, determine not only your short-term goal but also your long-term goal so that you can have an idea of which type of internship can work better to your advantage.

Lowered self-confidence

There are a couple of reasons why many students who are doing unpaid internships may feel like they are not being valued enough by their employers and co-workers and other interns.

First, they’re not getting paid for the work they render.

As if not getting compensated monetarily for all the roles you play and tasks you carry out isn’t discouraging enough, the fact that unpaid internship sometimes will involve you paying out of your own pocket essentials such as your room and board, transportation and others can make you wonder whether or not everything’s worth it.

Second, it’s not unlikely for an unpaid intern like you to be asked to do some of the most boring and mind-numbing chores that can leave you feeling like you are the butt of jokes and not being appreciated enough in the workplace.

And due to the fact that you are the only one within the company’s structure who isn’t getting paid and whose skills are not being fully utilized, feeling isolated is quite common.

Easily, the entire experience could end up frustrating and traumatizing instead of rewarding, although it will, of course, depend on the individual’s mindset and the paid internship program.

No employee benefits

Unpaid interns are practically serving as temporary workers who aren’t getting any pay.

It goes without saying that, because of this, they are not entitled to the same benefits as paid employees as well as most paid interns.

Medical insurance, paid vacation days, paid sick days, ability to contribute to a 401(k) plan — being an unpaid intern may keep you from enjoying any of these perks and many others.

But don’t take it against your employer.

That’s because federal law says that other than not being obligated to compensate them in any way, it’s completely up to each individual company to determine whether or not they will offer fringe benefits (free meals, housing, etc.) to unpaid interns.

While paid internships allow students to hone their skills and obtain experience related to their majors and, in many instances, earn college credits, too, it’s a big advantage if they could also enjoy the perks paid employees have.

Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

In most cases, although somewhat bordering on the exploitative side of things, unpaid internships are legal. This is especially true since the US Department of Labor (DOL) does not monitor job listings and pursue illegal internship complaints.

It’s therefore the task of students to determine whether or not an internship is legal.

First things first: unpaid interns are not considered employees like paid ones.

However, it’s important to point out that unpaid interns must be the primary beneficiaries — individuals who benefit the most from the arrangement — of the intern-employer relationship for any unpaid internship programs to be legal.

But because internship setups can vary from company to company and from scenario to scenario, there lies a degree of subjectivity in the determination of who the primary beneficiary is in a given situation.

It’s a good thing that there’s the so-called primary beneficiary test that helps make sure that it’s the intern who benefits more than the employer.

Here’s an outline of the said primary beneficiary test:

  • Both intern and employer understand clearly that there is no expectation of compensation — any assurance of compensation, whether expressed or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee.
  • The training provided by the internship program should be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including various forms of hands-on training provided by the academic institution.
  • The internship is tied to the formal education program of the intern by means of integrated coursework or the receipt of college credits that can be used toward an undergraduate degree.
  • The internship program should accommodate various academic commitments such as classes and extracurriculars of the intern by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  • The duration of the internship should be within a period in which the intern is provided with beneficial learning.
  • An intern’s tasks should complement instead of displace the work of paid employees while at the same time providing him or her with beneficial learning and real-world experience.
  • Both intern and employer should understand that the internship is carried out without any entitlement to a paid job at the termination of the internship program.

Is Any Internship Better Than No Internship?

Since the primary goal of an internship program, paid or otherwise, is for the student to hone skills in a professional environment related to their educational pursuit, an internship that fails to provide such is useless. It’s therefore important to opt for an internship that complements one’s studies.

Paid internships, generally speaking, are better than unpaid internships. And, in most instances, unpaid internships are better than having no internship at all. However, it will depend on the kind of unpaid internship.

By now, we have established the fact that unpaid internships come with a number of perks.

But to be able to enjoy the said benefits, it’s of utmost importance that you partake in an internship program that, while it may not compensate you with money, will allow you to benefit from it in other ways, ranging from networking with co-workers and supervisors, obtaining experience related to your chosen academic major to earning college credits.

Meanwhile, any time and energy that you devote to an internship that offers nothing that you can leverage to your advantage in your college and future professional careers is much better spent in the classroom.

Here are some things to look for when determining whether or not an internship opportunity is meaningful:

  • Allows you to learn beyond the classroom
  • Cultivates your hard and soft skills
  • Enables you to build a strong resume or portfolio
  • Suits your college-work-life balance
  • Provides you with access to professionals in your chosen field
  • Gives you a sense of what you want to be after college
  • Offers the opportunity to transition into a full-time employee

Conclusion: Is an Unpaid Internship Worth It?

Refrain from assuming that just because an unpaid internship doesn’t come with a weekly or monthly paycheck doesn’t mean it’s not worth your precious time and energy. Especially if the program will provide you with related experience, develop your skills and allow you to earn college credits, among other things, then it’s definitely worth it.

It’s true that an unpaid internship is, for the most part, not as favorable as its paid counterpart.

However, it’s sometimes more suitable for certain kinds of college students, including those who could benefit from having shorter and more flexible schedules due to loads of school-related commitments.

To make the most out of the opportunity to partake in an unpaid internship program, check that it aligns with what you are pursuing in college as well as your career goals.

Otherwise, you might be better off having a part-time or even a full-time job, which will allow you to enjoy pretty much the same set of perks but with regular pay and employee benefits, too.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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