Internships are increasingly replacing graduate jobs, but what are they? Do you get paid? And how do you know if your internship is worthwhile?

intern drinking tea

Wow! I get to drink the tea as well as make it?

It used to be that you’d finish uni, give your CV a polish and bag a junior job or a graduate traineeship before too long. Now, everyone seems to be talking about internships and a third of 2012’s graduate jobs went to people who’d done them, according to the UK Graduate Careers Survey. So should you consider doing one?

What is an internship?

Unlike Apprenticeships, which have to follow certain conditions, internships have no legal definition. Usually, they’re short-term work placements that let you sample your chosen industry – but not as short as work experience, which should last under four weeks.

An internship could potentially give you an edge in a tough jobs market. You’ll get hands-on experience, and you might find you’re first in the queue if a permanent job comes up.

Not necessarily. The law says you should be paid if:

  • You’re doing actual work, not just observing
  • The work you do is of ‘real value’ to your employer
  • You have to work set hours
  • You’re not on a government scheme or volunteering for a charity
  • You’re not doing an internship as part of an academic course
  • You’re not of compulsory school age

Which means you should get the National Minimum Wage, not just lunch and travel expenses. However, the Higher Education Statistics Authority says the number of new graduates doing unpaid work has tripled since 2003.

Should some of those interns be getting paid? Probably. But some employers either don’t know the law or don’t want to apply it.

Should I work for free?

You might think it’s worth living on baked beans for a while to get that added CV sparkle, especially if you could have a shot at paid opportunities down the line. Big-name companies often have people queuing up to do unpaid internships.

Not everyone can afford to work for free, regardless of how they feel about it. If you can’t find a paid internship and don’t fancy working for nothing, consider doing a shorter period of work experience or interning part-time alongside another job.

You can ask for payment. Campaigning organisation Intern Aware recommends contacting the boss. They suggest explaining that you can’t work for free and telling them exactly why you’d make a great intern.

You can’t waive your right to the National Minimum Wage if you’re doing proper work. You’re legally entitled to it no matter what you sign or how your employer describes your role, and you actually have up to six years to claim the money. Former interns at Topshop and The X Factor are among those who’ve hit headlines after being paid hundreds or even thousands of pounds in back pay.

What other rights do interns have?

Paid interns have the same employment rights as other workers. Unpaid interns have far fewer rights and aren’t protected from unfair or constructive dismissal. That means an employer can easily fire you from an unpaid internship for little or no reason, as unfair as that may seem.

Employers must take care of your health and safety, and protect your personal information, whether they’re paying you or not.

Do interns just make the tea?

You won’t gain much from the whole experience if all you do is bond with the kettle and photocopier. “Ideally, you’ll be given some tasks that are good for your CV, although you can expect some monotonous or repetitive tasks too,” says Tanya de Grunwald, author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession. “Do everything you are asked to do it quickly, but do it well – and always with a smile. Nobody wants to hire a sulker.”

“Good employers will be on the lookout for potential,” she adds. “So be someone they’d want to have around every day.”

How do I get a good internship?

  • Look for employers who want to interview you. “It’s a good sign because it shows they are taking the internship seriously,” says de Grunwald.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell employers what you’re after. Chances are they’ll be pleased you’re taking the opportunity seriously.
  • Ask to draw up an agreement with your supervisor about what you’ll work on and learn during your internship.

“Most employers aren’t monsters,” says Gus Baker, co-director of Intern Aware. “Don’t be afraid to ask what you should be doing and what they’re going to do for you.”

Next Steps

  • Acas offers free advice about everything to do with employment law. 0300 123 1100
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Anne Wollenberg

Updated on 29-Sep-2015