College Internships: Differences Between Unpaid and Paid

Posted by Lindie Johnson on Jul 24, 2017 2:33:00 PM

During your college internship search, it’s important to understand the differences between a paid and unpaid opportunity. Working for free may not sound like the best way to spend your time. However, there are other benefits that can offset the lack of monetary value and make it worth your while. So before you decline an unpaid internship, consider every aspect of the opportunity. Learn more about how an unpaid internship works and what incentives are available. Here is a look at the difference between paid and unpaid internships.

In order for an organization to offer an unpaid internship, there are some criteria that must be met. Businesses that do not pay interns must label the interns as trainees. Although trainees do not have to be paid, the Department of Labor requires that six standards be met in order to determine trainee status:

  • Training must be given in an educational environment
  • The internship must be beneficial to the intern
  • The trainee will work under supervision of the staff and cannot displace existing employees
  • The employer doesn’t reap any immediate benefits of the intern’s activities (i.e. they can’t be put on the phone selling goods through cold calls)
  • An offer for employment is not an obligation for the employer at the end of the internship
  • Both parties are aware that the intern is not entitled to wages for the internship

An unpaid internship is in no way, shape, form, or fashion designed to replace an employee.  An intern that is unpaid should not be spending  more than twenty percent of their time doing busy work. This includes errands, filing, answering phones, and correspondence among other things. You are protected by law as an unpaid intern so you shouldn’t have to worry about becoming the office errand person. If this does happen, contact your school career office immediately and let them know about your situation.

Intern Taking Notes

Benefits of taking on an unpaid internship may include:

  • Academic Credit – This incentive can be offered in paid and unpaid internships. The employer must establish concise learning guidelines that are agreed upon by both the school and the employer. Choosing an internship for academic credit can potentially suit your needs better than learning in a typical classroom setting.
  • Scholarships – There are some organizations that will offer scholarships to students who participate in unpaid internships.
  • Travel Stipend – To make a commute easier for interns, companies may provide traveling expenses. Since many college students are on a fixed budget, unaccounted for public or personal traveling expenses can add up.
  • Full-time Employement – Completing an internship can at times lead to full time employment. Your time as an unpaid intern can turn into benefits that will roll over once you become a full time employee. The National Center for Colleges & Employers (NACE) has conducted some studies showing that over 60% of interns are offered full-time employment at the conclusion of their internship. 
  • Networking Opportunities - Even if your internship doesn't lead to a full-time gig, you will make connections with people who many be able to connect you with your future employer. 

Paid internships differ from unpaid internships in terms of workload and flexibility. If you are being paid for an internship, you may be treated more like an employee. You are more obligated to do whatever work is assigned to you no matter how tedious and repetitive it may be, unless of course the learning contract you have in place with your school and employer prohibits this.

No matter what internship you choose, don’t disqualify an opportunity based on pay or no pay. Choose the internship that will stimulate your mind, offer you a great learning experience, and potentially lead you to a full-time opportunity after college.

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Topics: College Internships, Jobs