Internships: Experience or Exploitation?

Thursday 14 August, 2014

Image found here.


Unpaid internships: great experience or blatant exploitation? This debate is nothing new to the Australian media. However, with last week’s record high youth unemployment figures, the debate is heating up.


Youth unemployment figures have risen to a huge 20 percent last week, the highest figure in two decades reports the SMH. With this in mind, students are frantic to gain work experience and internships to try and secure themselves a job for completion of their degrees. The article also recorded that the Fair Work Ombudsman had received almost double the amount of complaints and inquiries regarding unpaid work experience over the last year.


Internships have become more than a resume builder, they are becoming a necessity. You don’t offer your free services to a potential employer, you compete. Many unpaid internships are even difficult and competitive to enter into, with numerous students aware of the rough workforce climate that awaits them.


The ABC has labeled internships a legal “grey area”. While some interns are ecstatic over their placements despite not being offered a job in return, others feel that they have been taken advantage of.


I spoke to a few OneShift users who have undertaken a variety of internships to see what they had to say. One student was undertaking a marketing internship that was organised through her college and stated,


“I felt that I was conducting an admin role within the company. Rather than teaching and mentoring me within the marketing field,I was performing duties which were beneficial to the business but not to my studies or professional development”.


This is where the issue lies, when the intern is performing duties that would usually be a paid position.  


Another user undertook four separate internships, with only one being useful to her in finding work. The one useful placement did not offer her a job, but rather improved her skills and was guided through a role which she hoped to pursue (she now works in a similar role elsewhere). Furthermore, it is interesting to note that this was undertaken after the completion of her degree, illustrating the tough job market and the importance that is placed upon having this experience. She advises that,


“For an internship to be beneficiary, you need to be learning a specific role you wish to pursue rather than simply getting coffees for the boss”.


Not everyone takes internships as part of finishing a degree or qualification. However, some are completed out of self-interest. One such OneShifter spent five months in total across India and Cambodia, unpaid, out of self-interest. Although she did not get a job out of it, she said it gave her insight into the type of work she may want to pursue in the future. She also adds,


I think internships are very helpful in personal growth, not just professional”.


Although internships are generally unpaid, I would argue that those in the role are actually paying to give up their free time. We don’t take into account how much it costs to travel to these places, to eat, to give up potential paid work to gain this supposedly valued experience. Therefore, the competitive nature of gaining an internship becomes even more so, with only those able to afford it going in the draw.


With the workforce becoming increasingly competitive to break into, internships and work experience are becoming more valued. This allows companies to take advantage of budding professionals while they try to crack the industry. While some internships may eventually lead to a job, there are countless unpaid internships that go by the wayside. 



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