Unpaid Internship Rules You Should Know

An unpaid internship can be an excellent opportunity to learn more about your future career field, gain hands-on experience and network with established professionals in the industry. However, unpaid internships have a unique set of rules and regulations that set them apart from volunteer work, paid internships and regular employment. Here’s a look at what you should know before you sign up for an unpaid internship.

You aren’t supposed to be performing free labor

The internship should be similar to the training you’d receive in an educational environment. In other words, you’re not supposed to be simply performing free labor for the company. Rather, the internship experience needs to tie in directly with your academic coursework. Your internship may even slow down production at the workplace, or inconvenience your employer. If this happens, don’t feel bad — it’s part of the employer’s job as your mentor.

You aren’t entitled to wages

When you enter an unpaid internship, both you and your employer should explicitly agree upon the terms of your internship. Your internship should last a set period and give you academic credit, rather than monetary compensation. Due to this, you will have a much lighter time investment than other people in the workplace — you may only spend 8-10 hours performing duties per week. Your presence won’t be displacing regular employees. Instead, you’ll work under their close supervision. On the other hand, if your unpaid internship forces you to perform the same duties as a regular employee, but without pay or a mentoring experience, the employer is violating the legal boundaries of an unpaid internship.

You aren’t guaranteed a job

According to Forbes contributor Rachel Burger, there’s a 37 percent hiring rate for unpaid interns, compared to 35 percent for students who haven’t interned at all. If you were guaranteed a job, you would be classified as a trainee — and trainees are legally required to be paid by their employer.

You should learn about the industry

Penny Loretto, a licensed career counselor and contributor to The Balance Careers, states that a good internship should result in a meaningful educational experience, where you participate in a varied, rotating workload of important on-the-job skills. For instance, if you’re interning at a laboratory, you should be learning how to operate equipment and prepare samples, not fetching coffee. Your employer should also give you regular feedback to help shape your learning experience.

You have fewer rights than employees

According to Peter I. Minton, a member of the Forbes Young Entrepreneur Council, unpaid interns need to be aware of some common pitfalls. Unlike a full-fledged employee of the company, unpaid interns aren’t entitled to company benefits, such as healthcare, retirement, unemployment and worker’s compensation if you get hurt on the job. Further, you won’t have legal protections against harassment and discrimination. However, your employer should honor your class and exam schedule,

An internship can be an excellent way to build your resume and gain experience, but it’s important to understand the rules of an unpaid internship. Once you consider these factors, you can make an informed decision about whether an unpaid internship is the right choice for your career and education. To learn more, speak with your family, your academic advisor or legal counsel.

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