Experience or exploitation?

An intern should be getting at least as much out of an employer as the employer is getting out of them.

Once upon a time, unpaid work experience was something Australians did for a week or two while completing their secondary or tertiary education. More recently, many Australian industries have embraced the idea of the American internship, which involves those aspiring to get an entry-level job volunteering their labour for extended periods, with some working full-time for several months without receiving a cent.

Are internships necessary?

As employers are quick to point out, no one is forced to do an internship. While this is technically true, especially in ‘glamour' industries where there are a lot of people chasing a handful of jobs, it's become the norm for people to do unpaid work experience in the hope it will lead to a paid position. It's now very much the exception to go straight from an institution such as TAFE NSW into paid employment in industries such as the media.

What's more, while internships were once confined to more prestigious occupations, they've now progressively spread across the workforce, meaning aspiring beauticians or bar staff are just as likely to find themselves doing an internship as a would-be magazine editor.

Are you getting trained or taken advantage of?

Given that internships are now unavoidable in many industries, the most sensible strategy is to concentrate on finding a good one offered by a decent employer. If you're learning things while at work and members of staff are setting aside their valuable time to explain things to you, chances are you're participating in a genuine internship program. If you're not learning much and you're undertaking the kind of work a paid employee would otherwise be doing, you're likely being exploited. While it's inevitably something of a grey area, as a general rule an intern should be getting at least as much out of an employer as the employer is getting out of them.

Unions and the Fair Work Ombudsman are currently liaising with employer groups to clarify what is and isn't a valid internship. Hopefully, by the middle of this year there should be clear guidelines in place, but until then it remains a case of buyer beware when it comes to internships.