Why Unpaid Internships Aren’t Awful

The debate concerning unpaid internships has raged and raged.

One one hand, some argue that you can’t get a job without experience, so internships offer that necessary middle step. Because not all companies/organizations/offices can afford to pay an intern, unpaid internships offer more opportunities for more entry-level workers to get the experience they need, thus opening up the industry for more people.

On the other hand, unpaid internships expand the class divide. Only those with experience can get a job, and only those with money can afford to take an unpaid internship to get that experience. It’s easy to get an unpaid internship when Daddy is footing all of your bills. But what about the majority of the upcoming work force that doesn’t have that financial safety net? They have to settle for a job that will pay rent, even if it isn’t in their chosen field, and won’t give them the experience they need to move up in the world.

Both of these arguments are valid, and the system is obviously flawed.

I, however, would like to offer a third opinion: an unpaid internship (aka Volunteering) is better than nothing at all.

Imagine that you’re a recent college grad looking for work, or a professional looking to switch fields. You might be working full- or part-time at a job just to pay the bills. Maybe you’re a minimum-wage laborer, maybe you’re in a great job that you love, but you want a change. You haven’t been getting many interviews because you don’t have the necessary professional experience. (Is this sounding familiar to anyone?)

Now, you can keep applying for jobs for which you’re under qualified, and hope that some day the perfect job will come along. OR, you can actively seek ways to make yourself qualified. Take online courses and webinars, read the right books, learn a language, teach yourself useful skills like web design and Microsoft Office, and VOLUNTEER.

Getting a job and a paid internship is hard, but finding a place to work for free, where you will get valuable professional experience is EASY.

Here’s how:

Find people in your area that you admire, whose jobs you covet, or who are working in your desired industry. Go to their workplace, looking your best (tell them of your coming beforehand by email!), and explain your situation. Tell them your professional goals, and how your lack of experience is keeping you from those goals. Tell them that you would like to volunteer in the office in order to learn and get that experience. (This can also be done via email or phone) They will very rarely say no!

Once you’re in, your first job to learn as much as you possibly can. Take on as many projects as they will give you, so you can see every aspect of their job. Warning – they may give you work that seems like it isn’t teaching you anything. However, even if you’re just getting coffee, you’re still bringing it to people whose jobs you want, and you can listen to their conversations and see what their work day is like and what kinds of issues they face every day.

Your second job is to prove to them how awesome you are. Get to know the people around you. Offer to help them with their projects. Be a friendly, helpful, and hardworking presence in the workplace. This will impress them! Once they’re impressed, you have an advocate. They might tell you when hear of job openings, or mention you to their hiring colleagues. You can ask them to be a professional reference – even though you never officially worked for them, they know you in a professional environment and can attest to your professional manner and skills!

I warn you – this whole process is going to be difficult. You’re already going to be working long hours to pay rent, and you may not feel like you have time to do this. But, as they say, nothing worth having is ever easy, and the hard work will definitely pay off when you land that dream job because of your awesome experience.

Why it works

  1. When employers look at your resume, they will see that you didn’t just sit still and wait for a job to fall into your lap. They will know that you are highly motivated and a hard worker, because you worked FOR FREE to get the job experience that you needed.
  2. You finally have that experience. Hooray!
  3. Volunteering in your field allows you to meet a lot of people in your field. Every single person you meet is a potential advocate, expanding your professional network of people who can get you to an interview.
  4. You have to work hard at your paying job, and do this in your scant free time, but every little bit helps. You’re volunteering, so they won’t expect you to be there every single day. Even once a week, or only on the weekends, or even just helping out online (virtual internships, maintaining social media, and guest blogging all count as volunteer experience!) is still a step in the right direction.
  5. You’re a volunteer, so you aren’t committed to working for them for any specific length of time. You can leave as soon as a better opportunity comes along. And, if you’ve played your cards right and really impressed your advocates, they’ll be happy to see you move on to bigger and better things!

In conclusion

Yes, obviously a paid internship or a job would be better for your career and livelihood than an unpaid internship. However, while you’re looking for that perfect paid internship or job? You might as well get experience wherever you can.


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