If you’re preparing to enter the workforce, relevant experience (or even being required) is certainly desirable to get your foot in the door. But what should you do if the perfect opportunity comes without compensation?

It is impossible to enter today’s job market without at least some relevant experience on your resume. But how do you obtain an entry-level job without being previously employed? While an unpaid internship may sound ridiculous—why would anyone work without getting paid!? Their usefulness in jumpstarting a career cannot be understated for some jobs.

30-second summary:

  • Networking is Crucial: Your connections and engagements in the industry can boost your chances of landing an internship. Engaging with companies on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter can create opportunities.
  • Financial Planning is Necessary: Unpaid internships often mean additional costs. Some interns have had to find other part-time jobs or rely on support from family and scholarships to cover their living expenses.
  • Ensure Valuable Experience: You should gain meaningful, relevant experience from your internship rather than just doing menial tasks. Both interviewees in the article were actively involved in their respective industries during their internships.
  • Potential Future Compensation: Hard work and dedication during an unpaid internship can lead to paid positions in the future, as experienced by the interviewees.
  • Legal Guidelines: Unpaid internships must meet specific criteria set by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The internship should benefit the intern more than the employer, and certain responsibilities and expectations must be met.
  • Negotiation Possibilities: While challenging, it’s possible to negotiate compensation for an unpaid internship, either monetarily or through other benefits.
  • Benefits of Unpaid Internships: Despite the lack of monetary compensation, these internships can offer valuable experience, networking opportunities, skill development, and potential future job prospects. However, considering the financial implications is crucial before acceptance.

But just how do you know when it’s the right time to take on an unpaid position? It all depends on your desired profession’s entry-level career standards, which you can determine by checking out several job postings in your study area.

Unpaid internships must, according to rules set out by the U.S. Department of Labor, directly benefit the intern, not the hiring company. An intern’s work should be educational training by doing real-world work, not just that real-world work. Sound confusing? Well, that’s how so many companies can get away with unethically (and illegally) employing people for no pay and calling them “interns.”

Even in a completely ethical, unpaid internship, there are hurdles. Some financially able students can accept unpaid gigs, but those who cannot are automatically at a disadvantage. Given student loans, living expenses, and daily expenditures, it’s sometimes a wonder how anyone can accept a temporary job without pay, no matter how much your chosen career path values them in the long run.

We talked to two pros who have previously had to bite the unpaid internship bullet to get some experience in their respective fields of fashion, advertising, and journalism. Collectively, Andi Morales (who had two internships) and Maggie Dickman have worked without pay for BCBG, ad agency twoxfour, and the Alternative Press. Here’s their advice regarding landing your next opportunity and whether or not you should work for free.

1. Networking is key.

In the communications industry, it’s all about who you know when paving your way as a young professional. Dickman says she’d never met an employee of the Alt Press in person before. Still, her avid readership of the publication and her social media engagement with the brand earned her quick recognition when it came time to interview for her unpaid editorial position.

“I submitted my application pretty close to the deadline, but I got a call within days of clicking the ‘complete’ button,” recalls Dickman. “I had some great phone interviews, and I was able to express my love for the brand throughout the process.”

Morales’ family friend assisted her in getting a job shadow at twoxfour, which led to an interview after she kept the conversation going after her 9-to-5 experience.

“I accepted the offer as I was completing my freshman year, and I knew how crucial it was to start building up my portfolio as soon as possible,” says Morales. “That first agency experience helped me land my next unpaid PR intern gig at BCBG the following summer.”

Even if you’re still early in your undergrad studies, it’s never too early to connect with some of your most admired companies and organizations on LinkedIn and Twitter. You might even land an interview in the future! Just be aware that in some industries, such as communications, it’s often common to work without compensation at these internships.

2. With little-to-no income, you’ll need to budget wisely.

Dickman had to relocate to Cleveland, Ohio, from Iowa for her Alt Press gig. While she had found affordable housing in a nearby dorm, she knew she had to make ends meet for the rest of the summer. Though initially struggling to find a suitable part-time summer job, she eventually scored a sweet one at a local cupcake shop.

Morales’ first internship at twoxfour was conveniently located in downtown Chicago, just a 30-minute commute from her childhood home. However, her unpaid experience with BCBG in New York City proved to be more difficult with her commute and her financial situation.

“I was fortunate to be supported by both my parents and scholarships while I was interning in the city,” says Morales. “I was given a meal stipend by my apartment complex as well, which certainly helped with my expenses, and I could walk to the office, saving me valuable subway money.”

For both Morales and Dickman, taking joyrides around their new cities wasn’t much of an option, and day trips or little vacations on the weekends were savored and uncommon treats. Some students who take on unpaid jobs must find extra paid work, such as freelancing or a second job, to manage their expenses. Still, others determine that the financial burden could be more manageable and possible.

3. Even though you’re not getting paid, you shouldn’t be fetching coffee.

After her Alt Press editorial gig, Dickman harbored doubts about her day-to-day experience at a major publication.

“I knew other people who had been interns at other publications and never got to write anything or make major impacts in the office,” says Dickman. “Instead of being reduced to doing menial work, I showed initiative and was able to publish my own work and interview some of my favorite bands and artists.”

Likewise, Morales was thrown into the advertising industry head first. At twoxfour, Morales assisted with contacting clients and managing mailing lists, and she even helped contribute creative ideas for client campaigns. Her BCBG experience had her pitching content to major magazines such as ELLESeventeenVogue, and Marie Claire for upcoming editorial spreads and featured content.

“My internships ended up intertwining with one another, and I was able to understand the ins and outs of my professional industries fully,” says Morales. “It was hard at times, but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything.”

Though both Morales and Dickman were fully committing themselves to their respective experiences, they were ultimately being treated as work equals without receiving any of their coworkers’ benefits. No matter how hard you work, you should be compensated with more than pats on the back and bylines. Unpaid jobs may offer plenty in experiential education, but you’re paying for it, not the other way around.

4. Hard work may eventually pay off (literally).

Upon completing her summer with Alt Press, Dickman was soon offered a paid news writer position, and she now contributes regularly to the Alt Press site with online quizzes, features, and articles. Morales scored a paid internship with Calvin Klein before accepting a full-time position as an advertising sales assistant for ELLE magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.

Both Dickman and Morales showed determination and a willingness to learn in their unpaid internships, and neither shied away from the idea of not earning monetary compensation. Looking back, both women are grateful for their respective experiences and glad they took the unpaid plunge.

“If you’re passionate about a particular career, don’t be scared about not making money from an internship,” advises Morales. For Dickman, the learning experience was payment enough.

“It’s worth it to work without pay for the experience,” claims Dickman. “If you work hard, the money will come in time.”

5. What are the legal requirements for unpaid internships?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers must pay their workers the minimum wage, except in cases where certain job responsibilities are exempt. Unpaid internships can be legal if the intern mainly benefits from the experience, as assessed by a seven-criteria primary beneficiary test. If the employer benefits more from the arrangement, the intern is viewed as an employee per the FLSA and must be paid at least the minimum wage.

Some states enforce requirements for unpaid internships, such as affiliations with academic institutions. When a for-profit company offers unpaid internship positions, they must make sure the worker is truly an intern, as defined under the law, and not an employee; otherwise, the company must pay the worker at least the minimum wage plus overtime. Under the FLSA, all unpaid internships at for-profit companies must comply with six requirements.

  • Internships should mimic training found in educational settings.
  • An internship’s primary benefit should be for the intern.
  • Interns must not replace regular staff.
  • The employer gains no immediate benefit from the intern’s activities and might sometimes face operational hindrances.
  • An intern doesn’t automatically get a job post-internship.
  • Both the employer and intern acknowledge that the intern isn’t entitled to wages during the internship.

Generally speaking, the unpaid intern shouldn’t handle routine tasks for the business, and the business shouldn’t rely on the intern’s output. It is important for businesses considering internships to consider the legal implications of unpaid positions.

6. How do I negotiate compensation for an unpaid internship?

Negotiating compensation for an unpaid internship can be challenging, but some strategies can help. Here are some tips from the search results:

  1. Negotiate for pay before accepting an offer: Be bold and talk to your prospective supervisor about your expectations before you start. By negotiating early, you can reframe your internship as a mutual investment in your training, making your employer more likely to invest more time and resources.
  2. Write down what your role requires: Talk about meeting those expectations. Highlight the additional work you’ve done and the value you’ve added to the company.
  3. Research the going rates: Investigate comparable internship programs to determine the typical compensation. Salary details are readily available on websites like Payscale and Indeed. If more recent salary data is unavailable, use this information as a baseline for discussing your internship pay with the particular company.
  4. Set a negotiation appointment: After you’ve conducted your research and identified the standard internship pay, arrange a meeting with your employer to discuss it.
  5. Consider other benefits: Some employers have internship benefits and monetary payment. It is also necessary to consider these when considering an internship proposal. And if you need to be paid better, they can provide special training, housing assistance, or a transportation stipend. Both of these can be discussed during the pay negotiations.

Remember, there may be factors that inhibit a meeting or negotiation. Certain companies offer summer internship programs with a set stipend or rate, whereas others might compensate hourly, weekly, or monthly. There’s no room for salary negotiation if the pay rate is predetermined.

7. Benefits of an unpaid internship

  1. Unpaid internships can offer several benefits despite the need for more monetary compensation. Here are some advantages:
  2. Experience: Unpaid internships provide valuable hands-on experience in a specific field. This practical experience can enhance your resume and make you more competitive in the job market.
  3. Networking: Interning at a company allows you to build connections and network with professionals in your desired industry. This can lead to future job opportunities or mentorship.
  4. Insider’s Perspective: An unpaid internship allows you to gain an insider’s perspective on a company or industry. You can learn about the company culture work environment, and whether it aligns with your career goals.
  5. Skill Development: Internships provide a platform to develop and refine your skills. You can learn new techniques, software, or industry-specific knowledge that can be valuable for your future career.
  6. College Credit: Some academic institutions offer college credit for relevant internships. This can help you fulfill graduation requirements while gaining practical experience.
  7. Interview Opportunity: An unpaid internship can serve as an extended interview. It lets you showcase your skills, work ethic, and dedication to a potential employer. This can increase your chances of being offered a paid position.
  8. Career Exploration: Internships can help you determine if a particular career path fits you. By gaining exposure to different roles and responsibilities, you can make more informed decisions about your future career goals.

It’s important to note that while unpaid internships can offer these benefits, they have also been the subject of debate and criticism. Some argue that unpaid internships can exploit students’ free labor without providing practical experience or educational benefits. It’s crucial to consider your financial situation carefully and weigh the costs and benefits before accepting an unpaid internship.

No matter what field you plan to work in, having an internship or two will make you look more desirable to recruiters, and the experiences alone will teach you about your skill set and professional interests.

Relocating to a new or unfamiliar city could cost you, and receiving no payment could set you further back in your debt-destroying efforts. However, whether or not you want to work without pay is a decision you’ll have to make on your own. It goes against human nature to work without pay but to stand out in a sea of applicants in today’s job market, some sacrifice might go a long way.

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