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Why it’s worth considering an unpaid internship

Craig Shepherd

Internships can open a lot of doors and help set up your graduate career, but not all of them come with a pay packet. Find out why you should consider an unpaid internship.

Why are some internships unpaid?

Internships come in all shapes and sizes, and not all of them are going to suit your needs. Many internships are unpaid and can run from a few days to several months. These placements don’t come with a wage because it is more about giving you the opportunity to build your knowledge, experience and skills, rather than working for that organisation. The Fair Work Act 2009 makes it clear that these arrangements can be unpaid as long as the intern is the one receiving most of the benefit, and the learning you gain is meaningful.1 If you have any concerns in this area, check out the Fair Work Ombudsman’s website for more information.

While we all wish we could be paid for everything we do, it’s important to understand the benefits of an unpaid internship, and why it can be so valuable for both your study and your future career.

Reasons to consider an unpaid internship

See where your degree could take you

It’s one thing to work on assignments, projects and case studies in a university environment, but an unpaid internship will give you some hands-on experience in real workplace situations. This is obviously valuable from a learning perspective, but it can also help you make an informed decision on your future career. Spending some time in an organisation to see how your skills are put into practice might give you a clear indication of a specific field or business you’d like to work in. You could also check out a job you always dreamed of and find it isn’t quite what you’d hoped. Either way, an unpaid internship can help with the choices you make when applying for graduate positions.

The Deluxe Entertainment Services Group offers rotational internships with this aspect in mind, ‘Our internship program is a rotational program with our Media and Broadcast teams to give you exposure to different facets of the business so you can also make an informed decision on where you might want to specialise.’

Bring employment experience back to your study

You might think an unpaid internship is really only good for enhancing your career prospects down the track, but it can also benefit you right here and now. If there are aspects of your study you are struggling with, sometimes spending some time in a workplace and seeing how the seasoned professionals do things can make your understanding of concepts a little clearer. It can be hard to digest a lot of theory without seeing it in action, and an unpaid internship gives you that opportunity.

Not to mention the fact that studying for your degree can sometimes feel like an endless parade of assignments and lectures. Break it up a bit with an internship, it can sometimes be just what you need to re-focus your goals.

Networking

When you participate in an unpaid internship, you are usually assigned specific mentors who will guide you through your time in the workplace. Depending on the length of the placement and how deep into the business it takes you, you could be having regular mentoring sessions with management or senior staff. This is a perfect opportunity to make a good impression and get your foot in the door for future employment opportunities.

So remember, while the internship is mostly about giving you some workplace skills and experience, the organisation will also be keeping an eye on you. Many people who complete internships go on to begin their post-graduate careers with the same organisation because they have already established relationships there.

Gain skills and experience

As per the Fair Work Act 2009, you aren’t supposed to be doing ‘productive’ work during an internship, which essentially means the organisation shouldn’t have you doing their work for them. That’s not to say you won’t be involved in real work though. You’ll likely be learning from staff members who are working on real projects and assisting them along the way, where practical. For example, a legal intern won’t be presenting any cases in court, but they will help the lawyer where they can and see how cases are prepared. Working closely with professionals should see you pick up plenty of skills and industry knowledge you may not get in the classroom.

Kristina was a Practical Legal Training (PLT) student when she participated in Salvos Legal’s PLT placement program, which is a four-month volunteer-based internship. Kristina says, ‘Volunteering at Salvos Legal has been an invaluable experience. I have attained an incredible level of skills and knowledge in relation to property law.’5

Experience workplace culture

This might sound like a less important reason to apply for an unpaid internship, but it really isn’t. Seeing how a real workplace in your chosen area of expertise works can really give you some important info when the time comes to apply for graduate programs or positions. You may only spend two weeks with an employer during an internship, but you’re likely to see what makes that workplace tick. Are the staff happy, or stressed all the time? Do senior staff make newcomers feel welcome? These are some of the things that may form the basis of who you want to work for post-grad.

Simon completed the Salvos Legal PLT placement and had this to say about his four months with the organisation: ‘I would definitely recommend this internship to anyone considering especially given the culture and environment that was present.’

Everybody’s personal circumstances are different, so an unpaid internship isn’t going to work for everyone. But if you think it can fit into your study plans, the above is a snapshot of the many reasons to consider when deciding to apply for an unpaid internship. You may not see the benefits of it immediately, but when it comes time to make your first important career decisions, you’ll be glad you did it. To see who are offering internships right now, check out our jobs page today.