Unpaid internships have become a quick and cheap way for companies to supplement their workforce when they can’t afford to make any full-time hires. As businesses look to decrease cost of labor, they are replacing many entry-level jobs by hiring unpaid interns to fill in the gap.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of the unpaid internship is actually hurting many college students and recent graduates. By taking on unpaid work, they are delaying their careers, and negatively affecting their salaries. And it’s not easy avoiding this. Often, those are the only opportunities available to gain valuable work experience.

As a young professional looking to strengthen your resume, internships are your best bet at laying the groundwork. However, there are a few reasons (beyond the monetary) why you should prioritize paid internships if you can.

It’s about how you value yourself

Many full time internships will have you working the duties of a regular employee. This even happens with unpaid internships, but you’re not getting a salary in return. Companies sell you the idea that the experience and college credits you’re gaining are worth the three or more months of unpaid work, but in reality they want to capitalize on free labor.

Paid internships, on the other hand, give you the opportunity to learn why your time, effort, and work are meaningful to future employers. They give you the opportunity to demand substantive work that will legitimately impact your career. They’re learning experiences that also allow you to put your knowledge into practice.

If a company is paying you, they will be more incentivized to give you a meaningful set of responsibilities. You’ll find that paid internships often result in better projects, more learning opportunities, and a better overall experience. Because even if you do have to go get coffee for the office every day, that will be one menial task among a dozen important ones.

As you work through your college career, make the effort to take on at least one paid internship. It It will give you the experience you seek and allow you to make valuable contributions on critical projects. And most importantly, it will teach you how to value yourself and how to portray that value to potential employers.

College Internship

Paid work increases your entry level salary

Unpaid internships negatively impact your entry level salary, which can have a ripple effect through your entire career. Students who take unpaid internships are more likely to ask for lower entry level salaries than their paid intern counterparts. And the result can often be lower salary expectations from a second job or a promotion.

Paid internships give students the opportunity to measure the monetary value of their work. As they work and get paid, they begin to understand how to set a dollar amount to the value they add. Having this understanding during the internship phase of your professional life is a crucial asset to proper salary negotiations for your first full-time job.

As you work in a paid internship in your industry and field, you’ll be able to determine your desired salary. This allows you to tackle your job search with a clear direction. You’ll be able to target jobs that have the right salary and responsibilities for you, and you’ll know what salary to ask for, what your salary range is, and how to negotiate for better pay or better benefits.

There are viable alternatives

Ideally, all internships should be paid, but that would take strong action on the part of government and business to change the laws that structure the definition of an internship. While that day may not be close at hand, there are good alternatives to doing unpaid work that will give you valuable experience and allow you to attach a price tag to your work.

One of these options is freelancing. Anyone can do valuable freelance work for businesses and individuals around the world, and the internet makes it easier than ever. Services like Elance/oDesk and Freelancer.com make it easier than ever to find freelance work. And most importantly, freelance work spans all disciplines, whether it’s design, software development, blog writing, sales, business plan writing… the list goes on.

Another viable option is to join the sharing economy. Some options are good for making money while in college, like Uber or TaskRabbit, while others can be great for your career. For example, a big new trend has been the hiring of virtual assistants and consultants. Services like these help you find interesting gigs get involved in meaningful work with entrepreneurs, startups, and executives.

The next time you look at your internship options, prioritize paid opportunities. Have at least one paid internship during your college years, or take on freelancing or the sharing economy, so that when the time comes for your first job search, you will be prepared with valuable information about yourself, your work, and your value to companies.

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