Are unpaid internships worth it? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 22, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:28 AM, October 22, 2020

Are unpaid internships worth it?

The primary reason why we put so much effort into education is to get a job, but look-ing for one – on the mere strength of some pieces of paper called degrees – can be daunting. Internships come to the rescue, easing the transition between education and profession. They not only bring valuable work experience and skills before fully enter-ing the job market, but also add a nice touch to anyone's resume.

Internships involve work to some degree, but as they are not full-fledged jobs, they are not always paid. In case of such opportunities, applicants would naturally expect learning useful skills that will not only compensate for the lack of financial reward, but also help them in their careers. The question arises, however, whether unpaid internships do meet such expectations.

Afsara Naim*, who recently completed an internship for a consultancy firm, says, "My senior colleagues were quite friendly, and they taught us how to conduct proper research. So, if I pursue my career in that line, I think the lessons would definitely come in handy."

Tahmid Chowdhury* interned for a development platform, but had a quite different experience than Afsara's. "My internship wasn't very enlightening or pleasant. Managing the workload was difficult, since I had to tackle my studies and other ambitions. I didn't learn anything like I expected to. I thought I'd be able to build connections and enrich my knowledge through this internship, but now that feels like an empty promise I had expected before applying," he comments.

As Tahmid mentions, since most interns tend to be students, they have to juggle work with their academic responsibilities which can prove to be quite taxing. Raisa Rahman*, who interned for an education-based Facebook group agrees, "My main job was to handle the group activity, which includes answering students' queries, posting announcements, and approving members and posts. It wasn't hard, but it was straining as I had to be alert at all times, even during classes. This definitely made me anxious, because I was constantly afraid of being called out if I was away for any reason, or I was too late to respond. I remember constantly checking my phone and staying up really late, just so I wouldn't miss anything." Raisa was promised a recommendation letter, but her employer has not reached out in the two years since her internship, "I doubt they even remember."

From Tahmid and Raisa's testimonies, it appears that certain employers take advantage of hapless students by disguising thankless work as lucrative internship opportunities. Unfortunately, there is no central regulation regarding internships in Bangladesh, which can protect prospective interns from such exploitation. If employers fail to do the bare minimum of training their interns in their line of work, then isn't a paid internship better than an unpaid one?

According to a 2018 working paper by International Labour Organisation (ILO), some of the studies cited point to the notion that financial incentives can motivate interns. Moreover, employers who pay their interns might also put more effort into their training programmes, in hopes of possible recruitment from the intern pool. Even if they do not get offered full-time employment, interns will tend to value the experience as a fruitful one.

The paper also notes that unpaid internships pose financial barriers for interns from lower-income backgrounds. Internships in general improve one's resume, and therefore the chances of getting a job. However, as most internships are not paid, it deters less privileged students from applying to one. As a result, they are forced to lag behind their more privileged counterparts in the job market.

"Internships are no walks in the park, you're ending up putting in a lot more than just your effort," Rameesa Jameel, who worked as an intern at a publishing house, comments. "The place I interned at was about twenty kilometres away from my place of residence. Taking trips there whilst navigating the Dhaka traffic easily took up five to six hours, which is a huge waste of time. In the life of a university student, this commute can get extremely taxing, especially during midterms. There are also fuel costs to be considered. Offering interns financial compensation is the least employers can do, considering how there's always a possibility of the promise of experience failing to be delivered. Remuneration can be particularly more motivating for people who are struggling financially. Internships shouldn't just be another luxury that a regular person can't afford, they're supposed to be available for everyone who is interested and qualifies for the job."

"I believe that internships in general should award compensation for the work, because if you're not paid, then it would allow people who can afford to do unpaid internships get ahead of those who are not financially stable enough to do them," undergraduate student Fariha Khan agrees. "The organisation I interned for is notable for their work to improve the lives of poor people. Yet, their internship opportunities are unpaid, which I found to be counterintuitive."

"In my opinion, most of these places who recruit interns are not very experienced or established themselves, and so before making all these promises, they should establish themselves properly," Raisa provides an interesting view. "It's almost as if we are used as guinea pigs for experiments about what's the right or wrong thing to do, but we are not lab rats. We have futures and careers to think of; when we take on these opportunities, we do so after careful consideration."

The consensus seems to be that internships should be paid. It makes sense not only for the applicants, but for the employers too. With paid opportunities, they will be able to cast a wider net of interested applicants, and get valuable output from the recruited interns. The latter will be more satisfied with their training, since there is a remuneration and a possible employment at the end. For the time being, however, unpaid internships are here to stay — usually as a single line on your resume.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Reference (May 18, 2018). The regulation of internships: A comparative study

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