Internships are a growing expectation for new graduates in many industries. But is working for free always a good idea?
By Georgie Koch
Graduating uni is really hard. Your education is over – the only kind if life you’ve known since you were five years old – and now it’s time to be a big kid and find a job.
Only problem is, these days it’s pretty bloody hard. Youth unemployment sits at around 16 per cent, which is the highest it’s been since 1997. It’s well documented that participating in education will improve your prospects, but it’s no guarantee you’ll find employment.
Even if you’re a graduate, things are grim. Last year’s national Graduate Outcomes Survey found that 31.1 per cent of all graduates were not in full time work within six months of graduating. Over 26 per cent of undergraduates who were working full-time said that getting an “entry-level job or career stepping stone” was their main reason for not using their skills and education to full advantage.
Of course, the pandemic would have affected these stats, but the figures have been similar for years.
Internships as a foot in the door
Enter internships, both during and after study, as a way to get your foot in the door. They offer a way to get that oh-so-elusive professional experience every job description asks for but few employers are unwilling to provide.
But as we know from urban legends and The Devil Wears Prada, there is a difference between gaining experience and being exploited for free labour. This has caused quite a stir over the years, with some companies canning internship programs altogether as the result or fear of legal action. Condé Nast famously canned it’s US program in 2013 in the wake of a class-action lawsuit, but reintroduced it last year.
Legally internships fall into fifty shades of grey areas, as both the intern and employer gain something from the situation. They get the work for free and you get the experience, contacts or even a job at the end of it. And let’s face it, there aren’t usually internships going at your local shopping centre tax accountant, it’s your high-profile industries and companies that are most in demand. So if you gotta work for free for a bit to get there, then why not?
Making sure you’re benefitting
Last year, the Law Society of NSW put out a fact sheet outlining a person’s rights and responsibilities during internships. The Society recognised that internships offer important work experience for law students and graduates, but mentioned that it was a “complicated” area. They outlined four areas where internships should be considered beneficial, and these apply to any industry, not just Law:
- Give a person experience in a job or industry.
- Test a person’s job skills to retain for future employment.
- Make a positive impact on the local community.
- Build networks with local universities and increase brand recognition.
So before entering into, or even during your time as an intern, here are a few things to think about to decide whether you’re being a prince(ss) and need to take a shot of concrete, or whether you’re actually being exploited for free work.
Do you even need to intern?
Internships look great on a resumé, but aren’t always required. I studied Communications, so it was pretty mandatory, but other industries aren’t so strict on this.
That said, working for free isn’t an option for everyone. If an internship isn’t something you can financially support, there are other options. Talk to people in your industry or maybe a career counsellor at uni about your chosen field.
If you can afford to take one on, do consider whether doing one will get you a better position. Experience in your chosen field will set you apart from the hundreds of other graduates going for the same job you’re after. Don’t underestimate the importance of listing some glowing experience above your part-time Macca’s job.
Do you need to harden the f*** up?
Most probably, yes. Lol, just kidding.
But seriously, internships aren’t meant to be super cruisey. As someone who takes on interns now, I know from an employer’s perspective they can often be more hassle than they’re worth. So don’t go in there with the attitude that you’re “doing the business a favour”. Depending on your performance, that might not be the case.
Yes, you will probably be asked to do all the shit jobs. But they should give you experience and possibly a good story.
If it makes you feel better, I once had to don the farm animal mascot suit of a certain brand of dessert and prance around Central Station in the background of an MX cover shoot being hugged and mooed at by random passers-by and homeless people. And I ended up being cropped out of the picture they used.
Does the good stuff outweigh the bad stuff?
The aforementioned shit jobs will inevitably come. But if they’re coming thick and fast with no glimmer of hope, then maybe you’re hooked into a bad situation.
If this sounds familiar, monitor the jobs you carry out over the course of a week. Regardless of how many days you’re there, classify the jobs into good and bad. Ahem, not ‘fun’ and ‘un-fun’, it’s about the value, not the enjoyment.
If the bad outweighs the good, then maybe it’s time to move to greener pastures.
Who is getting more benefit out of this?
You need to balance the see-saw here. As I said, you’re not doing a company more of a favour than they’re doing you by interning for them. You’ll inevitably ask stupid questions, make stuff ups and waste time before you get in your groove.
But as with the jobs list, weigh up how much experience you’re getting. How much weight this will carry when you go to step into the glorious world of monthly salaries, superannuation and annual leave?
And if none of this has been helpful whatsoever and you have more questions burning stronger than the fires of Mordor, visit www.fairwork.gov.au or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.