Internships: The Facts

Internships are an excellent way to gain valuable experience before getting a full time, permanent job.This section will introduce you to what an internship is, and what you need to look out for when applying for one.

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What is an internship?Are internships paid? • Are internships worth it?Where can I find an internship?

What is an internship?

An internship is a period of work that gives people, mostly students or graduates, the opportunity to gain new skills and experience in a field of work they hope to go into.

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Internships are great for learning new skills and
getting workplace experience.

Internships can range in length from a couple of weeks to several months or even a year. They vary in job specification, with some asking interns to shadow existing staff, and others asking them to oversee tasks or projects. Recently, interns have been given more responsibility and the majority of internships now require at least a bachelor’s degree. This distinguishes them from work experience placements.  

Internships are a relatively new but important feature of the graduate employment landscape. They are becoming more important to students and graduates looking for work, as well as hiring companies.

The two main reasons why numbers of internships have increased in recent years are: Many businesses are suffering due to the economic crisis and recessions so they want to save money on labour; and many more graduates are unemployed, meaning more people are likely to consider an internship as a way in to employment.

Are internships paid?

All interns in the UK should be paid as legally, anyone who is defined as a 'worker', must at least earn minimum wage. However, many internships are still unpaid. Companies that do not pay interns often offer some payment towards travel and lunch costs — this can help if you are commuting into central London (train fares during peak times can be pricey).

There are several scenarios in which interns do not have to be paid:

  • Volunteers do not have to be paid minimum wage. Determining whether or not an intern is a worker or a volunteer can be tricky.
  • If you do not have an employment contract, and do not have to turn up on any particular day or time, then legally you will probably not be considered a worker and so will not be paid. Be wary of working for company that does not give you employer contracts as they could be using this as a way to avoid paying you.
  • Students doing work experience as part of a sandwich course, and those shadowing someone at a workplace, are not entitled to be paid.

Many companies and interns do not know what is and is not legal when it comes to hiring and paying interns. This is how students and recent graduates end up in illegal, unpaid internships as a way of getting experience in a competitive job market. Whenever you are offered an internship, make sure to read any contracts thoroughly before signing them. If something doesn’t look right, ask the employer to explain it or talk it through with friends, family or careers advisors.

Are internships worth it?

If done properly, internships are certainly worth it. You may find the job or sector is not what you expected, but you should leave with a better idea of what you want to do next. Also, the experience on your CV will be invaluable.

Research by High Fliers in 2017 found that over a third of recruiters warned graduates who have no previous work experience they are unlikely to be successful in receiving job offers. They are also a great way to make contacts within an industry.

There are enough good internships available that you do not have to work for an exploitative employer. You should not have to work for nothing, and equally you should not have to do menial work which does not help you progress. Work for an employer who will value you enough to pay you and give you interesting, useful tasks.   

Where can I find an internship?

  • As with all other types of employment, personal contacts can be a good place to start when looking for an internship. A lot of roles are not advertised, so speak to friends and family – they might know of a position at their company.
  • Websites to try include Graduate Talent Pool, Milkround and Internwise.