The Difference Between an Internship and Unpaid Labor

Discussing interns and internships are what I consider an “annual” topic. Every year at about this time we talk about interns, or rather, the folks who like to present a job as an internship in order to get away with hiring free labor.  So let’s talk about what internships are, why they are necessary and why they are not free labor.

What is an internship?

An internship is a job one takes, usually working for a business, corporation or the government, in order to gain experience, build up a reputation and learn from the best. The focus is on the job training, rather than monetary compensation. Most interns are in college and work in this capacity in hopes of having a very good job lined up upon graduation.

What are the benefits of working as an intern?

In addition to the aforementioned on the job training, many interns can earn college credits, a small stipend, important business contacts, the promise of employment and references. In short, the ability to advance their careers. Interns don’t work for free. They gain something valuable in return.

Why do so many jobs offer internships, when they’re not offering anything in return?

Because these so-called employers feel that by offering a non-paying job as an internship rather than what it really is – getting something for nothing – they’ll look less like an ass. “Working as an intern” sounds a lot better than “working for free”, doesn’t it?

Questions to ask when applying for an internship

A job churning out web content from home all day every day, for an employer you contact once a week via email, isn’t an internship. Other than turning you off from writing as career, what can it possibly offer in return? Before you accept an internship, ask the following questions:

  1. What will I gain from the experience?
  2. How will it benefit my career?
  3. What kind of on the job training will I receive?
  4. Will I receive college credit?
  5. Will I receive the promise of a full time, salaried position after I graduate?
  6. Will you act as a mentor and offer me guidance?
  7. Will you introduce me to others who can act as mentors and offer guidance?
  8. Are these clowns just looking to get free labor?

If you browse Craigslist, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for interns, but many of these jobs aren’t. Remember, internships offer something in return. Job experience is more than writing web content. A true internship will attempt to teach you all you need to know about your chosen profession or major.  A true internship works in conjunction with your school so you earn college credits and recognition for your efforts. Before accepting an internship, research the opportunity thorougly. If it sounds like someone trying to get a whole lot of something for a whole lot of nothing, pass.

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7 responses
  1. Jenn Escalona Avatar

    I blogged about this exact same thing yesterday, and have even been on the other (dark) side. I had a client who used my services to write press releases and various other copy as needed. One day she called me with a long list of ridiculously specific qualifications and asked me to write a job ad on Craigslist. When I asked what she was paying, she said “Oh, just list it as an internship. Free labor!”

    Luckily, I was able to phase her off of my client list shortly thereafter. Talk about showing your true colors.

    Thanks for this post. Employers need to realize that they can’t get “creative” with compensation without giving something in return.

  2. Grace Rodriguez Avatar

    This is a great post, for both prospective interns and employers. I agree with Jenn: Too often, employers focus on their needs without considering how the internship should benefit the intern. When creating these opportunities, employers should ask themselves: “What value can I provide for the intern in exchange for their work?” Your eight questions are a good starting point to answer that!

  3. Kathryn Avatar

    A great place to find TRUE internships is through the local college. There are usually internship opportunities posted on the boards around campus. I’ve had experience working as an intern in a different field and I was given a place to stay, a small stipend and college credit. I did learn a great deal.

    When I was sixteen I worked as an apprentice (NOT a paying gig 😉 ). After three months of hard labor I was offered one dollar per hour to continue the apprenticeship. I finally began to realize that I was actually free labor and left.

    People will take advantage of your desire to get into a business (or in my case be around horses 😉 ). Review the job description and if you feel like you will come out better and more prepared to work in your desired field you might want to consider it.

    If you will be producing work that you can point future employers towards then you might want to consider the position. If the job seems slimy then it probably isn’t where you want to be.

    There are PLENTY of people that will let you write for free! Find someone that will give you something in return.

  4. Kim Avatar

    I agree 100% with everything in this article. The biggest part of an internship is gaining experience that you can use in a future paying job.

  5. Chris Avatar

    Excellent article. The only thing I would add is one more question: Will the Employer Make a Good Reference? Even if an internship doesn’t lead to a full time job, at the very least, you should get a valuable reference or 2 for when you begin applying for work. writing in on behalf of probably isn’t going to make a very valuable reference. I think considering what type of reference an employer will make is a good indicator of how legit the company is and whether they’re worth interning for.

  6. Shell Avatar

    There’s so many ads these days requesting an ‘intern’ knows the job inside out before even applying! Many of these companies want to take on a professional without offering any form of payment.

    Yes, I’ve seen long lists of required skills which are more suited to someone who has been in a career for 10 years let alone six months or less!

  7. Keely H. Avatar

    Really useful post. I’m about to start grad school and will be hunting for an internship and have bookmarked it. Thank you.

    I also wanted to let you know that I read your blog on Google Reader and something has gone horribly wrong with the feed formatting on this post specifically. You can still click through to get the post but there are several inches of strange warnings. Just FYI.

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