If you’re finishing up at university or recently graduated, chances are you want to up-skill to ensure you have the best possible shot at securing paid work. You’ve heard that undertaking a volunteer or internship position might just give you the hands-on experience and networking opportunities you need to secure your first ‘entry-level’ position. Or maybe in your sector, an internship is simply a rite of passage. You’ve done a search here or elsewhere but are not exactly sure which position is for you? How do you optimise your time to ensure you get the most out of such an experience? After all, you don’t want to be stuck in an unpaid position forever!
Let’s start with the basics
‘Volunteer’ and ‘intern’ are two words often used interchangeably. Some internships are paid, others are not; some positions are temporary, others are long-term. So how do you tell the difference between an internship and volunteer position, and more importantly, why do you need to know?
Students and graduates are increasingly using internships and volunteer positions to complement their studies and give them the ‘real world’ experience they need to secure a job post-graduation. In recent years, employers have also cottoned on to this trend and are now recruiting interns and volunteers across a range of fields and in industries where they have not previously been seen.
While issues of the legality and equity of unpaid internships, particularly those which aren’t linked to formal education such as university placements, are highly contested the world over (and increasingly in Australia), the reality is that unpaid internships occur all the time. In a competitive marketplace where jobs are extremely limited, young people are always looking for the ‘edge’ over their peers. Working unpaid for skills, experience and industry contacts is (sadly) now the norm.
As more of these types of positions are advertised, it is important to be very clear about what you’re looking for and why, in order to ensure you get the most out of your (often unpaid) experience.
The difference between an (unpaid) internship and volunteer position
With no universally accepted definition at hand, the key difference between an unpaid intern and volunteer seems to be the individual’s motivation. While a volunteer offers their time freely for the primary benefit of the organisation to further its mission or cause, an intern enters into an agreement with specific learning outcomes in mind, i.e. for the purposes of obtaining or building skills and experience in a relevant vocational field.
According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, ‘the person who’s doing the work should get the main benefit from the arrangement’. Interns are thus distinct from volunteers, who give their time to a cause expecting nothing in return, i.e. no financial remuneration or professional skills. While the volunteer may benefit personally or professionally from this arrangement, that benefit is not the primary aim of their engagement.
In other words, an internship is fundamentally a self-interested arrangement, while a volunteer ‘donates’ their skills and time to an organisation or cause.
Identify your motivation
Are you a first year university student just looking for some extracurricular community engagement or are you about to graduate and looking for hands-on skills and experience within a specific vocation or field? Understanding your own motivation when looking for a role will help you optimise your time. If you want to develop specific skills, look for an internship with designated learning outcomes. If you want to get in with a specific organisation simply because you love their work, (I say this largely with not-for-profits in mind) by all means volunteer! Just ensure you adjust your expectations according to the role you’re undertaking and understand why you’re there.
Be very clear about what you want to gain from the experience
Once you understand your motivation you’ll probably have a better idea about what you hope to gain from the experience. Write it down! While some expectations will need to be tempered by the reality of what an organisation is actually able to provide, if you’re not clear on what you want out of the experience (and equally what you can offer!), then chances are you’ll look back on it and wonder what it was all for?
If you’re volunteering with an organisation, it’s probably because you believe in its mission and values and want to see the advancement of the issue or cause. If you’re interning however, even if it’s within a NFP environment, you should reasonably expect to come away with something tangible from the experience. If you’re not clear on what you want that to be, then chances are you won’t get it.
Be selective with how you spend your time
You only have a limited amount of time, particularly while you’re at university. Don’t waste it photocopying and doing coffee runs. Granted, there will be occasions when you’ll be dealt the jobs that nobody else wants, but you need to use your own discretion as to how much you allow that to occur. At the end of the day, if the work you’re doing isn’t contributing to an organisation’s overall mission (volunteering) or fulfilling your agreed learning outcomes (interning) then you need to reconsider if it is worth your time, or if your time is best spent elsewhere.
Learn how to pick a bad apple
Don’t waste your time with disorganised organisations or individuals. That said, if you’re volunteering, you will need to be a bit more flexible. Many NFP’s have limited resources and you might spend your first day wondering exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. But that is precisely why you’re there: because you’re passionate about the cause and they need voluntary help to achieve their objectives.
However, if you’ve signed up to an internship and you turn up on your first day without any form of induction or training and no desk to sit at, you’re probably not going to get what you might have expected out of this experience. It is critical to make sure you ask the right questions in the interview. This is the time not only to prove you’re the best person for the role, but to determine if this organisation is best placed to deliver on what you need. Remember, a lot of these positions won’t be paid, so it pays to be discerning!
Here’s what we think an ideal internship might look like:
One final point
If you are, or are planning to, intern with an organisation that operates for profit, then we think you should reasonably expect to be paid for that work, particularly if the work is productive or the organisation is generating revenue from it. We understand that in many cases this is easier said than done. With a scarcity of jobs and many internships highly competitive themselves, most young people are not in the position to “negotiate”. In many instances, interns fall outside the Fair Work Act and thus their engagement with business suffers from a lack of regulation. It is for this precise reason that non-profit organisation Interns Australia was established. As experienced lawyers and advocates in this field, they can help put you in touch with further information about your rights. They’re even working towards a National Accreditation Program to improve the regulation and transparency around internships in Australia.
At the end of the day, this is your experience and you’re the only one who knows what is right for you.
Margaret Quixley is the founding director of Young Opportunities Australia and a passionate advocate for the rights of young people. If you want to share your experience, information, opinion or advice on our blog, please get in touch: hello [at] youngopportunities.org