Stefan is a co-founder at JobHero. In this post, he discusses his experience with both paid and unpaid internships, and why the former is the better choice.
I spent much of my college summers working a few unpaid internships. I thought I was doing a good job, I thought I was working hard, and I got good recommendations afterwards. But my perception of how those summers went changed drastically when I got my first and only paid internship.
The one that really drove me
The major I took up in college was political science, and any polisci major knows that paid internships in the field are a rarity. You’re expected to volunteer your time for political campaigns or work unpaid internships for non-profits. Even the federal government, which has passed strict internship rules mandating pay or compensation from corporations, usually doesn’t pay interns.
These are, of course, great opportunities, and each internship I took on helped me gain valuable work experience. But thinking back, I have little concrete to point to that I can say I accomplished from them. And it all stems from the fact that there’s a difference in the projects and responsibilities given to paid and unpaid interns.
My first paid internship was near the end of my college education. It was a paid research gig that had me working on a critical project. The results of my research were used to support overall arguments made in a book about negative political ads. And I never worked harder or put in more effort in an internship.
I got the end result I was looking for: something I could point to and say “I accomplished this.” My work was published mid-last year as part of the book and acknowledged by my boss. And I got a mentor out of the experience, a person who knows my strengths and weaknesses and helped me get to where I am.
It’s not about the money
Now this doesn’t mean that I worked harder because I got paid. Money is secondary - the main issue of unpaid internships is how you value your work and how your work is valued by others. Many full time internships will have you working the duties of a regular employee, but not getting a salary in return.
A wage makes it clear that your time and work are valuable, and that while you're a short-term asset for a company, you need to be compensated as such. An internship should be an opportunity for you to make a name for yourself and develop a portfolio of work, not for the company to take advantage of your free labor.
The most crucial thing I realized about gaining work experience in college? You should search for and demand substantive, paid work that will legitimately impact your career, allowing you to learn and put your knowledge into practice, teaching you your value to employers, and resulting in a concrete final accomplishment.
No pay = lower entry level salary
There are other benefits to paid internships, beyond concrete results and a boost in effort and satisfaction. Research shows that college students who work paid internships are more likely than college students who take unpaid work to ask for higher salaries in their first jobs.
The result? According to a 2013 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students with paid internships have higher starting salaries than those with unpaid internships by over $15,000. Further, only 37% of students with unpaid internships landed jobs before college, compared to 63% of students with paid internships.
There are better alternatives
Finding paid internships can be hard in certain industries, but luckily there are other options. Freelancing and contract work are great alternatives to unpaid internships. Freelancer marketplaces like UpWork and Freelancer give college students the opportunity to hone their craft and put it into practice, creating meaningful results for both companies and their own portfolios.
You can find any kind of work you might want online. Software development projects, design work, business plan writing, marketing/social media, you name it. This is an awesome way to build resume experience on your own terms and at your own pace. And if you want something more local, go door to door with local businesses and offer them your services.
The point of paid work is not about money, although that is definitely a nice perk. It’s about learning in your educational and formative years of your career that you should value your work and put a price tag on your time and effort. With unpaid internships, you’re left to figure that out much later in life, after you’ve already gone through your first job. Having a paid gig allows you to know what to ask for in salary and set your key job search parameters.