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Should I Accept an Unpaid Internship during a Global Pandemic?

Rising unemployment means that more people may be considering unpaid internships as a path to eventual employment. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether an unpaid internship is right for you, but here are some things to consider as you make your decision.

Your labor has value. Start with that bottom line. Employers offer unpaid internships because they can, not because you are unworthy of payment.

If you start there, you can ask a more empowering version of the question. Not “should I accept this situation?” but “how do *I* want to use my labor?” Internships are not the only way to gain skills, gain experience, and demonstrate your value to employers.

Using your labor in an unpaid internship may be worthwhile IF

  • the mission of the organization is so important to you that you’re wiling to donate your labor (in the same way that you might donate money, if you could).
  • you’re confident that you will get benefits from the internship (experience, opportunities, contacts) that are equal to your labor.
  • you don’t need to worry about making money — or you can fit the internship around other income-generating work.

Before you accept the unpaid internship, think creatively and widely about other ways that you might use that time to demonstrate your leadership potential, creativity, and “soft skills”:

  • volunteering for an organization that you care about
  • working on your own creative or entrepreneurial project
  • community or political activism
  • solving a COVID-19 related problem for the people around you.

The global recession may limit your options and extend the time it takes to find a job. It doesn’t change the fact that your labor has value, and you have agency in how you use that labor.

Additional resources

The US Department of Labor publishes a fact sheet that can help you understand the circumstances that make an unpaid internship legal.

Should you work for free? (A pre-COVID blog post on the issue).

College credit may be available for your internship through LAS 199 (Professional Development Seminar, CRN 46391)  LAS students can contact Brian Neighbors, Director of Career Development in LAS: bneig2@illinois.edu for further information.