Don't do another unpaid internship; there are better ways to get experience

November 06, 2015
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To me, there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and unpaid internships.

After this week I’ve done more than 2,000 hours of free work during volunteering, internships and work placements across the last seven years. If an entry-level journalist’s salary is about $27 an hour and I worked all of those 2,000 hours without any sickies, I should have made about $54,000 (before tax, that is). But all those hours were worked for free, so I haven’t received a cent.

Internships and work experience are painfully necessary in the super competitive world we live in. No matter if your career path is leading you towards becoming a lawyer, a fashion designer or a journalist, you’re expected to have done some form of professional placement prior to employment.

Interns work the same hours as paid employees and they don’t receive a cent for their work. Quite often, interns are even left out of pocket. With so much doom and gloom already in the world I hate to use the word ‘unfair’, but by definition, this type of exploitation is just that.

The problem is, the job market is saturated with applicants and graduates, and a lot of professions, like journalism, are in decline. If you want a job straight out of uni, you’ve got to prove yourself capable. You’ve got to show that you’re experienced and can be trusted working in the big leagues.

To me, there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and unpaid internships.

But there are alternatives to unpaid work. Instead of settling in for a few weeks of working for free, unlock your inner entrepreneur and build up something of your own.

In the workforce there’s a lot of emphasis put on innovation. Due to the changing nature of many industries, everyone’s expected to be able to become agile in their skillset. If you can prove you’ve got some solid entrepreneurial skills, you’ll stand out from the crowd.    

By carving out a little niche for yourself, you’ll be able to demonstrate a bunch of employable skills. If you want to be a journalist, start a blog. If you want to be a fashion designer, start creating your own clothing. If you want to be a filmmaker, produce your own YouTube videos. If you’re really keen, you might even consider starting your own business.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the news lately, but the internet is chock-a-block full of new, independent start-ups. Don’t doubt your creative ability to start the next big thing.

Start-ups can be lucrative new ways of making money. There are a number of crowdfunding websites where people are throwing millions of dollars each day behind new indie start-ups. The government is also throwing some helpful cash money and tax help behind new start-ups and small businesses.

Perhaps, with a little sideways thinking, you can combine your start-up with your volunteer work and internship. If you can create some sort of new technology, application or product and you can prove the practical capabilities of your product to a potential employer, you’ll set yourself high above the rest.

Not so savvy with business or technology? Give community media a go. Most big cities across Australia, and even most rural hubs, will have a community newspaper, radio station or TV station, and they’re always looking for volunteers. In community media you’ve got a lot more intellectual and creative freedom than if you’re working for a big company, which means new ways to express and prove your skills.  

Experts say unpaid internships are necessary for graduates who want to kick-start their careers. But remember: they’re not the only way into a job. There are other ways to get experience - all you need is a little creativity.

Keegan Thomson

Keegan is studying journalism at the University of Western Sydney. He’s an avid storyteller and global traveller whose likes include fresh bed sheets and Jeff Goldblum movies.