Unpaid internships: the good, the bad, the networking, the exploitation

We’re graduating, and it’s time to face an important question: What’s next?

As much as we might want to pirouette from campus straight into a sparkly career with a hefty salary, that’s not always easy. While you’ll be armed with a strong educational background, you may not have much relevant career experience yet. That’s why internships—yes, even unpaid ones—can be a helpful option for transitioning from learning in a classroom to learning in the workplace.

There are two sides to internships. Unpaid internships potentially exploit and take advantage of young people looking to climb the professional ladder. They also price people out of the best jobs by creating barriers for those with less economic privilege.

In January 2018, in the wake of a wave of recent intern lawsuits, the U.S. Labor Department updated its guidelines for unpaid internships. According to the department, unpaid internships must “be for the benefit of the intern…not displace existing employees, but work under the close supervision of existing staff… [and be] similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.”

While unpaid internships may not be the right route for everyone, here are some points to consider.

What’s your motive?

Does an unpaid internship align with your goals and dreams? Do you need—or even want—the experience, or are you only considering it because it’s what you think you’re supposed to do or because it looks good on paper? Internships are, above all, opportunities to learn. Your biggest motivation should be gaining knowledge, skills and experiences that will get you closer to where you want to be.

Is it doable?

Would an unpaid internship work with your life situation and schedule? How will you afford rent, food and other expenses? Internships vary in required time commitments: Some may require 20 hours a week; others may only require four. Some internships can be done remotely, so you can set your own hours. Once you’ve graduated and no longer have classes and homework, you’ll be more likely to have time to balance an unpaid internship and a part-time job to make ends meet. Taking on an unpaid internship can be a challenge, and it’s best to assess your financial, personal and professional needs before you bite off more than you can chew.

Unpaid internships may not be jobs, but they do require work

As cliche as it sounds, you get out of an internship what you put into it. If you take advantage of your experience, you will learn hands-on, valuable skills, gain confidence in your field and your abilities, gain a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and build your resume. Even if you stumble along the way, learning from rookie mistakes will keep you from making them in a more permanent position.

I believe the ethics and benefits of unpaid internships depend on the businesses or organizations providing them and the individual’s goals and capabilities. If the party offering the internship is a government agency, major corporation or Ivanka Trump, they have no excuse not to pay interns for their time. But if you have enough time and economic ability to offer your services to a small business or nonprofit for free and learn professional skills along the way, I say go for it.

If you decide to take the leap and intern without pay, challenge yourself, don’t be afraid to ask questions and try to absorb as much information as you can. Whether paid or unpaid, internships are opportunities to learn—even if the lesson you learn is to never work for free ever again.