Updated: Mar 14, 2024

Should You Accept an Unpaid Internship to Start Your Career?

The jobs market is confusing for everyone, but especially people who are just starting out: Are unpaid internships illegal or not? Should you work for free?
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Things are kind of awkward in the job market; unpaid interns are working harder than their bosses, kids are making 6-figures a year off their YouTube channels, job creation is at record highs, yet underemployment is a seriously ignored issue.

There are many complicated facts and figures associated with the job market these days, thanks to the recession and technological advances.

But today I'd like to focus on the ever-growing popularity of unpaid internships and underpaid jobs.

If you are considering taking a lower paying job or an unpaid internship because you are switching careers or are just starting out, here are some questions you should ask yourself before you accept.

Aren't Unpaid Internships Illegal?

Yes and no.

Although the U.S. does have a strict minimum wage law, there are exceptions to this rule; government and non-profit organizations can usually get away with hiring volunteers, or unpaid interns.

Businesses in the private sector are out of luck -- they've gotta pay up.

The Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division recently came up with a list of six criteria private-sector businesses must meet when offering unpaid internships:

  • The internship must be similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  • Experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  • The employer who trained the intern derives no immediate advantage;
  • The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship; and
  • Intern understands that he or she is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

The internship industry is changing as more individuals become aware of these six conditions.

10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Working for Free

Just to reiterate, I think everyone should be paid for the work that they do.

I also think working for free makes it so much harder for other job candidates who want to get paid.

I do not suggest you work for free unless it's going to progress your career and get you on the path to a paying job.

Now that you've brushed up on the legal aspects of unpaid internships, it's time to figure out if it's the right decision for you personally.

Here are some questions to answer to get a better picture if taking an unpaid gig is worth it.

1. Would I Be Taken Advantage Of?

This may seem like a hard one to answer, but if the company you want to work for is breaking a lot of the rules listed above, then they're probably not a corporation you want to invest your time and energy into.

2. Is it a Government or Non-Profit Agency?

If so, they may be exempt from the above rules -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

It just means if you feel wronged at the end of your project with them, you'd have a harder time seeking legal action.

3. What are My Networking Opportunities?

I recently started volunteering at a storytelling event.

I sit in on production meetings and then help set up space for monthly shows.

It doesn't pay anything, but I've met a lot of performers and attendees throughout my time with the event.

I like to surround myself with creative people who will push me to be creative too.

4. Who Will I be Working With?

This is similar to question three, but has a more centralized focus to the specific job you're doing.

If you're working on your own time, outside of an office, how are you going to make connections that can further your career?

It's important to work with people you respect, who you could learn from and potentially work with in the future.

5. Is There an Opportunity to Get Hired Full Time?

I know this contradicts the one of the six conditions listed above, but I still stand by it.

The reason the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship is to protect the company from getting sued.

If you start working with a company directly after your internship, you could claim you weren't getting paid for training, which is a fair qualm to have.

But, I know a lot of small companies are not ready to make a hiring commitment to you until you've proven your chops -- it's not fair, but it's how a lot businesses operate these days.

If you think your work could lead to a future job, I'd say go for it.

6. Do I Love the Work?

If you're loving what you're doing, then it's going to be a lot easier to put in the time while you get resettled in your new career.

If you're doing grunt work like getting coffees, filing papers or composing tweets, then I do not suggest you take the unpaid work.

If your work involves learning more about a field you aspire to be in, then you should take the position.

7. Where am I in My Career?

This is an important question to ask. I started taking unpaid projects when I switched careers and moved to Los Angeles.

I didn't know anyone, I didn't have any experience in the entertainment industry and I didn't have a job lined up.

It was perfect timing for me to jump and volunteer for different organizations I respected.

I knew this move would help get my foot in the door for the brand-new career I'd just created for myself.

8. How Much Savings Do I Have?

How much money you have in your savings account is everything.

Do not, I REPEAT, DO NOT work for free if you haven't established the proper savings for taking on these unpaid projects.

9. Will This Cost Me Money?

Okay, so you have a bit of savings to take on these passion projects, but have you thought of how much it will cost you?

Think about commuting expenses, eating out for lunch, or buying coffee during the day.

These costs may be small, but if you're not making any money, they add up.

If you are doing unpaid work, I think the place you're working for should at least feed you and try to cover travel.

See if this is something you can negotiate.

10. What's My Schedule Like?

This is a two-parter: What's your schedule with the specific project you're working on and what's your personal schedule?

I started working for two producers creating a podcast for Radiotopia.

I've always had a deep appreciation for radio, podcasting and public radio.

I thought this would be a great way to get involved despite having no experience in the field.

I learned a lot of editing techniques, made a ton of connections and had so much fun, but after a few months I realized that it was getting in the way of other projects I was working on.

When I told the guys I needed to shift focus to my other work, they figured out a schedule that works for me and offered me a little money to continue working for them.

It was a win-win situation.

The only thing I wished I'd paid more attention to was my availability and how long they expected me to volunteer for them.

It would of made my exit a little smoother.

In my opinion, I don't think you should do unpaid work for more than a month (maybe two) before getting paid and/or promoted.

11. What's My Title?

Is there a job open for you? Can you make your own position?

I've done this plenty of times before.

For example, I was given the title, associate producer, on a project that I didn't get paid for, but put a lot of work into.

Now I can use the directors I worked with as references, the project I worked on as a sample and start applying for paying jobs.

How'd I get the gig? I just showed up at their office and said, "I like your work, how can I help?"

12. Is it a Favor?

I've done plenty copy editing and writing for my family and friends.

I never charge them.

Sometimes they kick some money my way, sometimes they don't.

People have different opinions on this, but my friends are my family, and my family means the world to me.

I could never charge them anything for the work I do for them, especially after all they've provided me.