Are free internships really worth it?

Working for free isn't easy, but is it worth it?

Working for free isn’t easy, but is it worth it?

Bill Gates did it. So did actors Tom Hanks and John Krasinki. Designer Tom Ford, too. Xerox CEO Ursula Burns did it. Newsman Anderson Cooper opted in, along with rapper Kanye West. Even Oprah said yes, Every one of these people said yes to free internships.

Merriam-Webster defines an intern as “a student or recent graduate who works for a period of time at a job in order to get experience.” According to The Class of 2015 Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 56.5% of students who worked an internship were offered jobs, compared to 36.5% of students without such experience. While some of the internships were paid, unpaid internships are the norm.

And therein lies the problem. While many businesses herald the virtues of aggressive go-getters applying for an internship opportunity, students and young professionals are left to wonder … am I selling myself short by working for free? Does the perceived payoff make it a worthwhile endeavor?
First of all, you’re often not making any money. That means you’ll have to find another way to derive needed income, which could include taking a second job. Your tasks as an intern can be less than glorious, even at times menial. Or conversely, you are over-worked and an employer takes advantage of your unpaid status.

Receiving due credit can be an issue. You may not be recognized for what you do, and someone else may get the accolades for your achievements. And in the minds of some, the word intern has a negative connotation of a person who knows very little, and is just trying to get ahead. Not necessarily a pretty picture to paint.

However, there are a myriad of benefits to being an intern. When the duties are not glamorous, at least you are in a business atmosphere that interests you. You can soak up information and knowledge just by being there, and by observation. You may be fortunate enough to get more responsibility, and gain some substantive work experience. And that experience is priceless. In some situations, you can receive a valuable education without the cost of graduate school. That’s not to negate the importance of education; instead, it highlights the value of real-world know-how.

Internships in your desired field of employment can look great on a resume. No matter how weighty your responsibilities, the fact that you’ve worked at all in the field can give you a competitive advantage. That advantage can help outside of the company, but it can also assist you with the very employer who’s providing the internship. After all, they already know you, and presuming you’ve learned a lot, and have been a conscientious employee, you’d be an asset to the company. And you won’t have to be trained again!

Even if you don’t see an immediate job as a result of the internship, you can make great networking connections in your field. Those connections could ultimately propel you in your career. And let’s not forget the fact that you may discover you hate what you’re doing. What a gift to realize a career is not for you at the beginning, instead of being unhappy for years!

An internship is like anything in life – you get out of it what you are willing to put into it. And despite the drawbacks, the value of learning more about your craft, of seeing those who do the work on a daily basis in action, and of making new contacts in your field will usually surpass the potential cons. I worked for free when I started my career. That invaluable experience landed me a television job (yes, paying) at a production studio.

Was free really worth it? Unequivocally, yes!