Internships & work experience – paid versus unpaid

These days, with so many people looking for work and so few jobs, it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd.  That’s compounded by the fact that so few employers even acknowledge receipt of applications, let alone give feedback on why you haven’t been successful (a personal bugbear of mine).  You can’t get a job without experience and guess what, you can’t get that experience if you haven’t got a job.

Given all of these factors, it’s no wonder that so many people seriously consider offering to work for an employer for free or think about an alternative route to getting the valuable experience they need.  We hear so many horror stories about unpaid internships going on for years and work experience that generally gives no more “experience” than how to make the tea. This article looks at whether these arrangements should be paid or unpaid and highlights some key points to look out for.

Unpaid internships and work experience

Technically, an internship is another word for work placement or work experience.    It should mean a defined period of time, usually up to two weeks, that a student is given an opportunity to work in a company.  The period of work is unpaid but forms part of their studies in some way.  The employer in this case is not obliged to pay the student and they don’t get any employment rights during that period of time.  That refers to students either of compulsory school age or those doing work experience as part of an agreed and accredited course.

Therefore unless you are a student, an unpaid internship or work placement takes advantage of you and is against the law.  In theUKwe have rules about minimum wages and a company who employs you under this type or arrangement is breaking the law.  In fact, HMRC set up a response unit to carry out unannounced inspections of businesses to ensure that interns do get paid at least the minimum wage.

Paid internships/work experience

It could well be the case that you are offered a paid internship and if you are, you should make sure that you are being paid at least the minimum wage that applies to your age group (  Aside from the issue of getting paid, you should also be very clear on what you’re going to gain from this arrangement.  If your prospective employer doesn’t offer up the information from the start, here are some key questions you should be asking:

  • What areas or departments of the business will I be working in?
  • Who will I report to?
  • Who will oversee the work that I do?
  • What experience can I expect to gain from working in your company?
  • How will you monitor my progress and performance?
  • Is there any possibility of a full-time position if I do well on the work placement?
  • How will you give me feedback on how I’m doing?
  • What happens if I’m not meeting your expectations?
  • What do you expect to gain from this arrangement?
  • What can I bring to your company?
  • Are there any key areas you’d like me to focus on?
  • Do you have any special projects you want me to work on?
  • I have xyz experience – how do you think I could best use that experience in your company?

There will be other questions depending on the circumstances and arrangements but these will give you an idea of the kind of things you should be asking.  While this type of arrangement does benefit you by giving you valuable work experience, it’s not a one-way street and the employer will benefit from having you on board too.

In conclusion

You might be considering putting yourself forward for a work placement but before you do, you need to be very clear on what you’re going to get from it and of course, whether or not the employer in question is willing to pay you!

Written by Katherine Connolly, Managing Director of Keeping HR Simple 

Keeping HR Simple. That’s who we are and what we do.  There are complex HR issues in today’s workplace; however we believe most of what your business needs can be kept very simple and straightforward. With practical hands on advice, we help you with your day to day HR needs, giving you the confidence to handle situations correctly.

You can also follow Katherine on Twitter @hr_katherine


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