It’s that time of year again when college students are safely tucked into their internships working for credit to graduate. But while some of us are getting valuable experience using skills we learned in class and getting our fair wages, others are doing work that doesn’t even relate to their career paths, like scrubbing toilets … yes, scrubbing toilets. Some interns are even producing great work for companies and not being properly compensated. There are unpaid internships out there that are worth taking, but can you afford it? It’s important to enter an internship search knowing what your rights are and what’s negotiable.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having an unpaid internship. However, your internship should be beneficial to both you (learning important real-word skills you’ll need upon graduation) and the company you’re working for (taking time-consuming tasks off the to-do list of managers and assistants). The key is making sure you’re in an internship program that follows the law and is worth your time and effort. Organizations offering unpaid opportunities must follow the guidelines of the Fair Labor Standards Act:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship

If you are an unpaid intern, I think it is very important for you to familiarize yourself with these guidelines and know your rights. Paid or unpaid, being in an internship program committed to helping you learn and practice your skills is only going to benefit you in the long run.

Sure, it’s an ideal situation to be paid for your work (and here at AKHIA, all formal internships are paid), but don’t think you’re not getting anything out of an unpaid opportunity. See if you can receive school credit or move closer to graduation because of the internship. Ensure you get plenty of contacts and networking from the organization. Lastly, who knows? If you make a good enough impression and the timing is right, a full-time opportunity could be in your future. Yes, look for paid opportunities first, but an unpaid internship is a rung on the career ladder students shouldn’t always write off.

What’s your take on paid versus unpaid internships?