There has been an exponential increase in the number of unpaid internships in recent times. Doing internships has long been a way for students to gain some real-world experience before entering the job market. Internships should be educational and help students understand if they would like to pursue a career in that particular field. On the other hand, interns do have to work for the organisation, even if it is not to the extent that full-time employees do. Hence, the rise of unpaid internships has incited some debate.
Students who commit to unpaid internships often do it in hopes of the internship helping their career after graduation. But do unpaid internships pay off in terms of better career prospects?
Benefits of unpaid internships
The most prominent benefit is work experience. Interns have a glance at what goes in a real workplace, with deadlines, various colleagues, and more. Internships can sometimes result in a full-time job offer after graduation if the interns manage to impress their supervisors as well.
Academic institutions and students both benefit from the real-world experience the students derive from their internships. It allows students to extract a richer educational experience as a whole. Thus, the institutions get more skilled graduates with more industry connections, who can go on to build stronger alumni networks. Strong alumni networks can make the university more desirable in the eyes of prospective students.
If the interns are given good tasks that help them learn, they get a taste of what working in the industry may feel like in real life. Interns can also build their professional networks through work. They may get the chance to receive feedback or career advice directly from industry professionals themselves, which is invaluable.
Rifat Z. Khan, a trainee lawyer at a corporate law firm, had a wonderful experience during her six-month-long unpaid internship at UNODC. "I had always wanted to work with the criminal justice system," she said. "UNODC Bangladesh is a small office and therefore I had tons of opportunities to learn. We simultaneously worked with the UNODC HQ's national projects as well as global projects. I feel this sort of exposure to a truly international environment is rare, especially in Bangladesh. I am currently at a corporate law firm, which is quite a leap from the UNODC. While the content is not similar per se, I feel the administrative and logistical know-how that I learnt from UNODC will be useful for any sector I will be contributing to."
The other side of the coin
Unpaid internships are not just unpaid; they cost the interns money. As Karim (pseudonym), currently a territory officer at a renowned multinational, said, "Going to Mirpur DOHS from Shantinagar regularly for my internship at a social business incubator was a heavy hit to my wallet. Unpaid internships sometimes have undefined hours as well."
Unpaid internships put less fortunate students at a disadvantage as they often have to find a source of income and therefore cannot afford to give away their labour for free. If unpaid jobs or internships do result in better careers, they do so at the cost of aggravating socioeconomic inequality.
Zuhrat Inam, a research associate at BRAC JPGSPH, said, "I was fortunate enough to get course credit and even received a scholarship because my university understood the plight of unpaid internships. I am also privileged enough that it wouldn't have mattered to me even if I didn't get the scholarship. But that doesn't make it okay. Yes, I learned a tremendous amount in terms of project management, information sorting and compilation, administration work etc. Those things are helping me in my full-time work now, but I also gave a lot to the organisation. Then why wasn't I paid?"
Such internships also harm the labour market. They incentivise companies to offer fewer entry-level, full-time paid jobs as the companies get the chance to get their work done by free labour.
As for whether unpaid internships do have positive outcomes, as per a study by ILO, paid internship opportunities are associated with better outcomes compared to unpaid ones. This may be because companies that offer paid internships may be doing so to recruit well-performing interns in the future. It could also be because the payment relieves interns of the need to find a second job for the income, hence spreading themselves too thin.
Furthermore, a study on the impact of unpaid internships on job-hunting success by the National Association of Colleges and Employers has found a negative relationship between participation in unpaid internships, and the students' salary and employment outcomes. Participation in unpaid internships is correlated with longer searches for jobs, too.
To do or not to do unpaid internships
As Karim said, "Unpaid internships teach you to get accustomed to certain things. When you first enter the corporate world, one of the hardest things you have to learn is how to say no. Having a constant can-do-everything attitude can leave you with tons of work that undersells your abilities, and the stress that comes with it. I also learned how to gain traction with the boss, how to handle different types of people, know what I can do well, and know my limits as to how much work I can take on at one time. You may do such internships during the earlier years of your undergraduate. But if you do get the chance to do paid internships, do not undersell your labour."
If you can take on unpaid internships, try to make the most out of it. Take on internships that will allow you to develop yourself professionally in the career field of your wish. Try to pick up useful skills and if possible, find a mentor who can guide you after graduation.
There have been questions regarding how much productive work unpaid internships or jobs entail. If you find yourself stuck in a place that does not allow you to learn, reassess your priorities.
Can unpaid internships have benefits? Yes. Are those benefits exclusive to only internships that do not pay remuneration? Absolutely not.