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Herzing University

Career Development Brendan Barbieri

Unpaid Internships: Are They Worth It?

Before you turn down an unpaid internship, remember the values an internship experience could provide!

Have you ever heard an intern described as “free labor”? The truth is an intern is anything but free labor for an employer. An internship can be beneficial to college students and their employers.

Unlike training a new employee, internship sites must dedicate staff time and resources to ensure that interns are constantly learning and meeting the objectives of their program. This investment of resources can explain why internships are not always paid positions although not all internships are unpaid.

Before you turn down an unpaid internship, remember the values an internship experience could provide! Let’s talk about four ways an unpaid internship still provides value!

Real-world skills

According to a 2018 survey by NACE, when choosing between two qualified candidates, employers rated internship experience as a top attribute when deciding to hire a candidate.

The real-world skills you can gain at an internship not only help with applying the knowledge you obtained from school but show employers you are better prepared in the real world. Education gives a great foundation while the internship provides practical application.

College credit

Depending on the specifics of your program, you may be able to earn college credit for your internship. Some programs recognize the skills you learn on the job and will award you academic credit for your work.

You should always check with your academic advisor to learn if you are eligible for an internship for credit as well as learn the requirements specific to your program. For example, you may only be able to earn credit for an internship during a certain class and there may be an approval process for an internship that needs to be completed ahead of time. Set yourself up for success by researching and planning early!


While you shouldn’t expect a job offer from your employer where you’re conducting your internship, a 2021 study by NACE revealed that about two-thirds of 2020 internships led to employment. Even if employment is not available at your internship site, it can be a great way to expand your professional network to other potential employers.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that in 2016 employee referrals led to 30% of all hires. The connections you make at your internship site can be the bridge to a new employer through their network. Think of your internship as an extended job interview and treat it with that same level of care. Whether a job opportunity is available through the internship site or a different employer, impressing the right people at an internship site can provide a significant edge on the competition.


While some degrees may be focused on a very particular outcome, such as an educational internship leading to a teaching career, there can be variance in almost every position. Even positions that seem more focused on paper can have a wide variance in the day-to-day. For example, RNs can work in ERs, women’s health, nursing homes and everything in between.

Business degrees can mean different things to different people. Business professionals occupy all levels of an organization, so an internship may help narrow down what you would like to do in that field. Using an internship to learn different facets of a job can help identify where your true interests lie. Do not be afraid to let your internship supervisor know if there are areas you would like to gain some more experience.

Remember, even when an internship is unpaid, it can be an important stepping stone toward the paid career you want. The skills you gain and the people you meet can end up being the deciding factor between you and another candidate. As an intern, you are not free labor, and the value you gain depends on what you put into it.

Brendan Barbieri is a member of Herzing University’s Career Development team with over ten years of experience including as a career coach and internship coordinator.

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* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics 2023 / Occupational Outlook Handbook 2022. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.

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