The value of being unpaid – the tricky question of internships

There’s been a lot of furore lately about unpaid internships, with headlines like “Sheryl Sandberg earns $100m, but won’t pay interns” flooding my Twitter feed.

I’ve enjoyed reading both sides of the argument, including one my favourite writers, Mia Freedman, who has loudly and proudly talked about the half dozen women she’s hired who started as unpaid interns – and about her own experiences with unpaid work to get her foot in the very competitive industry of magazines.

My thoughts? Well – I think of April, who has just received a paid position casually at our real estate agency Elephant Property. We didn’t have a position that needed filling: we created one for her. It’s only small at the moment, a few hours, but it will likely grow in the future if she keeps on impressing us.

Why did we create a job for April? She came to us on a form of internship from a local high school. She was polite, well presented, eager and did the work given to her well. That said, we’ve had perhaps 10 other students perform equally as well as April during their time with us, and while we’ve maintained a lovely ongoing relationship with many of them, we haven’t created a job for any of them.

April got a job, because she showed initiative and dedication and determination. Upon leaving her one week’s initial stay with us (part of her schooling program), she took it upon herself to ask to come back for her entire two week school holidays and work, unpaid for the experience.

While we didn’t allow April to give up her entire holidays, she did come back in for two days during her holidays, and was so keen to continue to volunteer to come back in to build her experience that we knew she would make a lovely asset to our team. Anyone who shows that much commitment and dedication gets bonus points in my eyes, and while April never asked for a paying job, she did show with every action that she deserved one.

If I were looking for work right now, I’d target the company/ies I wanted to work for, and if I couldn’t convince them in an interview that I was the gal for them, I would absolutely be offering to come in, unpaid, to show them my worth and value.

Heck, there are companies I’d do an unpaid internship at right now and many that I would pay for the privilege of doing so for what I would learn. Would I feel exploited at the end of it? Hardly, I’d feel enriched if I were given the opportunity to learn from the inside. And the beautiful thing about it would be that if I felt exploited I could simply leave.

From broke at 19 to retired at 27, Kirsty Dunphey is an entrepreneur, mother and author, and lives by the motto Memento Vivere (remember to live).



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