Career

How To Stop Being The Perpetually Unpaid Intern

If you’ve been chipping away at an unpaid internship for a while, you might start wondering whether the company is engaging in some casual exploitation of your fine self. There are great internships that mutually benefit both intern and company, and then there are the ones that can wind up taking the piss. So how do you know when something’s gotta give? Here’s a guide on how to turn your efforts from unpaid to moneymaker.

Unpaid internships are seen as a necessary stepping stone into a desired career path for many. But the waters can become easily muddied, and the question of whether these internships are legally and morally sound has been raised within the media a multitude of times.

The logic of supply and demand means unpaid positions are likely here to stay – whether they involve glorified coffee runs and hours spent slaving over data entry or meaningful experience in a competitive industry. What’s necessary is learning how to make the most out of your placement while being aware of when the relationship has moved to the next level.

Two things to look out for

Journalism student, Sydney, tells a story that is all too familiar – she gained an unpaid internship position with one of Australia’s biggest television networks, where she worked full time for a month. While the time spent at the network was absolutely invaluable for Sydney’s resume, she felt somewhat taken advantage of after multiple pieces that she had worked on were aired, while she received no remuneration.

But the thing is, she was credited. So where do you draw a line in the sand? It’s murky territory, but Katriina Tahka, an HR executive from A Human Agency, outlines two easy ways to tell if your feelings are justified:

“If the intern is asked to do a considerable amount of work that would normally be done by an employee of the company, then it may indicate that they are being used for unpaid work to the benefit of the company rather than participating in a genuine work experience program.” So, if you’re asked to do a bunch of free work for an extended period of time, it may have entered exploitative territory.

The second way is by recognising if the relationship has naturally shifted: “If the unpaid intern starts being treated more like an employee (for example, working to set office hours; having set responsibilities and deliverables/KPIs; working independently) then it is likely the relationship has become an employment relationship which is entitled to the minimum protections and entitlements of the National Employment Standards.”

Get it in writing

The length of your internship is also a key factor here, according to Katriina; “If the period of the unpaid internship is either open-ended or keeps on being extended without pay” then it might just be that the company is trying to get maximum output from you without actually considering changing the arrangement into paid employment. You know, something for nothing.

The way to avoid this is pretty simple; “The key is always to be clear on the arrangement upfront. Get as much pre-agreed in writing as possible. Make sure you think about length of time, what areas you want to experience and what the nature of the work is that you will be doing.”

Sydney was realistic about her chances of being a paid intern. She says, “I understand that being paid as a student when you’re supposed to be learning and getting experience isn’t always possible. Sometimes the experience is enough [as] payment, but I’d say those internships are few and far between.”

It’s OK to ask for more

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Katriina says that the potential for paid employment is part of the reason for doing the internship in the first place, making it in no way unreasonable to broach the question of gaining a paid position; “That’s part of the reason for doing the internship – it’s to show you have skills and potential that the company can benefit from. It is completely appropriate to say that you really enjoyed working with the company and that you’d love to be considered for any suitable roles.”

Stay clear-headed

At the same time, interns need to keep an objective outlook on their position. On the one hand, you might feel like you’re being taken for granted, but could actually be gaining excellent experience. On the other hand, it might seem really ‘cool’ to be working for one of the nation’s hippest companies, but if you’re just doing post office and coffee runs, you might want to reassess your situation (and goals).

But if you can objectively decide that you’re doing valuable work for a company, and not getting the recognition or benefit you deserve (and are entitled to) from the arrangement, then it’s time to talk next steps.

Quitting an internship is always an option, but not necessarily the best one, especially if you’re doing some great work and networking like a pro.

So here’s some ways that you can go about approaching an employer regarding payment for your hard work:

#1 Back yourself

Back your efforts, work, achievements and the distinct value your personality brings to the team. If you’re exuding confidence an employer is much more likely to take what you’re saying more seriously and believe that you’re a true asset to their team. Don’t second guess yourself; engage and be a valuable part of their company.

#2 Get clear on your achievements and value

The best way to prove your value is by having evidence of your awesomeness. This could be pieces of writing that you’ve had published, great feedback from clients, projects you’ve worked on that were a success or simple instances of kudos that you’ve received from other team members. Compile them and use these examples to make a case for yourself.

#3 Approach your boss at the right time

Two kick-ass bosses – Emma Isaacs, the Global CEO of multi-million dollar company Business Chicks, and Jade Mackenzie, the General Manager of digital startup Stackla – gave The Cusp their tips on how to get a pay rise, and their very first point? It’s all about the timing.

Before you get ready for you big intern-to-employee chat, ask yourself how the business is doing. Isaacs says, “If the company is in a period of growth and hitting record sales numbers, those are great signs that there are opportunities.” The flip side is just as important to note, too. “If several people in the business have just been made redundant and sales are down, it’s probably not a great time to be asking,” adds Mackenzie.

Timing also applies to how long you’ve been in your role. If you’ve only been there a couple of weeks but feel entitled to move over to full-time employment, you might not have enough of a case to make your proposal.

#4 Be clear on your why

Ideally, you shouldn’t be asking a company you don’t respect or admire for employment anyway, so make sure you vocalise the reasons why working at this particular company is the perfect way to start your IRL career. Clearly articulating why working there is the best decision for both of you is key. Outlining the things you’ve loved learning and the unique opportunities you’re grateful for won’t hurt, either.

And Sydney? She managed to secure employment with one of the companies she interned with.

It’s important to remember that the work you are doing is worthwhile, and if you feel that it isn’t, perhaps it’s time to move on. If you’re interning and unsure of your rights, check out the Fair Rights Ombudsman.


Tegan Reeves is a Wollongong based freelance writer who isn’t afraid of oversharing. She writes for Beat magazine, BRAG magazine and is always up for a Fleetwood Mac singalong.

Lead image: HBO Girls