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I'm a new grad of a web design/development certificate course with very little experience and I've begun applying for jobs.

I have received interest mostly from places offering internships. I have an interview set up for one of these internships at a startup but it was stated on the description that it is unpaid and it seems that they advertised for several other unpaid internships at the same time (for other roles in the startup).

How can I determine whether it's worth it to pursue this internship and should I continue looking for jobs while participating in the internship if I obtain an internship?

  • Internships are useful for three reasons: 1) when they are paid 2) when they help you get a paid job through experience 3) when you personally gain something from it (e.g. the internship is fun or you are helping at a non-profit you support). It sounds like you'll be able to find a job soon enough, so definitely don't take the internship. – raptortech97 Oct 25 '14 at 1:49
  • @CuriousGeorge - you could include this website in your profile. – user8365 Oct 25 '14 at 10:57
  • I know, I just don't want potential employers making the connection and seeing the questions I've posted here...maybe I'll just ask for feedback in the form of another question and then delete the link later... – CuriousGeorge Oct 25 '14 at 20:12
  • About the website, quite the opposite, this question reflects good things even for possible future employees: you value your time-effort – Francisco Presencia Oct 26 '14 at 14:09
  • As a company looking into hiring interns, one of the earliest decisions we made is to pay interns. Even for interns, we want the best people for the position, and paying well is necessary. That's relevant to the question here because as an intern, you'll be learning from the other people at the company. This company is unlikely to have top rate talent from which you can benefit. I.e. no money should be compensated by a better education but usually it isn't. – MSalters Oct 27 '14 at 12:50
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In the United States, many unpaid internships are not legal!

In the US, an unpaid internship must meet the following criteria (from the Department of Labor and FLSA regulations):

  • The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction.
  • The training is for the benefit of the trainees
  • The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded
  • The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period.
  • The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

If, after the interview, it seems as though it is a normal (not intern) position, just unpaid, and it doesn't meet the above criteria, then you have an obligation to report them to the Department of Labor, provided that you are under Unites States jurisdiction.

  • The UK has a similar concept, but essentially the decided on legality is "are you acting as an intern, or an employee?" - if you're shadowing someone and getting lots of training, while taking some of the more minor work from "real" employees, it's legal. If you're basically doing the job but unpaid, it's illegal. – Jon Story Oct 26 '14 at 23:00
  • Do you have a cite to a law requiring people to "report them to the Department of Labor" when they heard about an illegal unpaid internship? I'm pretty sure there's no mandatory reporting for that. – Andrew Medico Oct 27 '14 at 15:16
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    "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded" - for a web design company, this seems like it would be hard/illogical to do – user2813274 Oct 27 '14 at 18:52
  • It likely is, and those requirements are straight from the DOL website. – daaxix Oct 27 '14 at 20:37
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    @AndrewMedico, of course in the United States there is no legal requirement for reporting. We, however, have an ethical obligation as citizens to report such bad behavior by corporations. It is abhorrent! – daaxix Oct 28 '14 at 2:58
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I look at those who offer unpaid internships as either bottom feeders or potential bottom feeders. If you decide to apply for an unpaid internship, have a plan B in place even if that plan B is another unpaid internship. That way, if you decide to dump them because you feel you are not learning anything except how to be exploited, you at least have an alternate place to go. Since you're not getting paid, it would behoove them to make a good impression on you quickly - and they won't have all (say) summer to make that impression.

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In my experience, unpaid internships aren't worth it. I'm based in London and there's a lotta dodgy startups which are trying to do too much with little experience or infrastructure to execute their plans (the whole 4/5 startups fail in their first two years bit -- "we do design, dev, marketing, strategies, management, editing and mire!" type deal), usually with one or two key guys or gals running the show who actually have some idea of what they're doing. Their objective is to build up their company or group with as little cost as possible and the dodgy places will offload work for normal employees onto inexperienced and professionally unseasoned grads who have no idea what they're getting into or what they're worth, usually for the same hours as a full-time employee and unpaid and they'll even be sketchy on reimbursement for travel or lunch.

Steer clear of smaller places that offer unpaid internships as a general rule -- there's nothing you can't learn from a book and practise out yourself that you'd be doing for one of these places. Not every startup is like this but its common enough to be a hazard to watch out for. If you really wanna do the unpaid route, get with the biggest names around. Like a prestigious university, brand value is everything and very helpful when you're first getting up the ladder. Seriously, if you're at all ambitious about your career, this should be the only reason you would consider doing unpaid work, like anything else in life.

  • As a student I had a great unpaid internship, but it was at a university working in an optics lab as an engineer. So I was in an educational environment, falling under the supervision of people whose very job it was to teach their skills to others. Would never have learned things like lens grinding and coating except in theory if not there. – jwenting Oct 27 '14 at 12:46
  • Forgot to mention, I'm also part web dev, part app dev and am a recent grad. For those of you who are into RPGs, I'm a bit of a multiclasser. wink So when I say the above, I really have experienced the initial tech industry gauntlet myself so just trying to pass on what I know. – PrometheanVigil Oct 27 '14 at 14:18
  • Thanks PrometheanVigil. I just had the phone interview with them and it seems like while I'll be learning a lot (particularly in PHP, Wordpress, etc. though I have to mention that I want to specialize more in front-end dev and UI design), the majority of what I'll be involved in is day-to-day maintenance of the site and perhaps making a new contact form or login system here and there. I don't know if that justifies me working full-time for no pay when I could just stay home, teach myself and make awesome new portfolio projects. Any thoughts? – CuriousGeorge Oct 27 '14 at 15:48
  • The very fact that you even had that thought and came posted back on 'ere (to me specifically, which is lovely thank you, hah hah!) probably shows you already know that particular "internship"/job is no good. It's probably not conducive to your career interests, is what I'm sayin' here. Trust your gut. If financially you're paid for (e.g. live with supportive parents), up to you. If you've gotta pay that rent though or it's gonna be all on you financially even as far out as a year from now, get paid doing something even somewhat related to your ideal job. – PrometheanVigil Oct 28 '14 at 13:33
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There seems to be a Catch-22 here based on getting paid or not and whether you get to do any meaningful work. I'm not sure what is worse: getting paid to learn nothing or actually doing and learning something for free.

Everybody assumes you're being exploited because you're doing work for free. Unfortunately, there are too many internships where there isn't any real work being done at all by the interns. That doesn't mean you can't learn anything, but too often there isn't anyone there who can take the time to supervise. Let's face it, they don't have the money to pay you, they don't have the money to pay people to attend to you either.

The most important piece may be whether or not you can get a quality reference from the people at this company based on your experience. They may allow you to contact a previous intern to see if it was worth it or not.

  • I had the phone interview for the internship this morning and I've decided not to take it if it is offered to me. Turns out I'd be doing a lot of maintenance and back-end work. The web developer who interviewed me was once an intern there but he is the ONLY web developer that works at the start-up (as in, he is getting paid to work there). I feel like it's overwhelmingly more a case of doing free work for no pay and I've decided that I can do more with my time/effort. Thank you. – CuriousGeorge Oct 27 '14 at 21:08
  • I agree with your answer to some degree, but there are cases where an intern is a burden to a company, but still may learn a lot. For example, consider an intern for some applied systems engineering for a summer. This intern could learn a lot at the company. They could be taught risk analysis, design patterns in real software systems, etc. But, when the internship is over, the intern should have learned quite a lot, but not have really contributed much of value...*this isn't a normal job.* – daaxix Oct 28 '14 at 19:47
  • This requires effort and expense on the company's part to keep the intern learning knowledge that is far enough away from the intern's expertise that they are unlikely to make any contribution which is beneficial, monetarily, to the company. The company benefits through the societal benefit and the mentorship experience. – daaxix Oct 28 '14 at 19:48

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