Why unpaid internships are still worth your time

How would you like to work for a month, 3 months, 6 months, a year, for a world-class Fortune 500 company? Sounds tempting huh? How good would that look on your CV? There is just one catch though – you don’t get paid.

The trend for unpaid internships started in the US when the corporate giants (and government – Monica Lewinsky anyone?) discovered that ambitious, clever, undergraduates, graduates, or just those who were forward-thinking enough, would welcome an unpaid work experience. These unpaid work arrangements suit both parties. The company or government department can hire quality candidates, with no strings attached, and no ongoing commitment unless the interns made an impact and the temporary employment relationship became a permanent vocational placement.

Productive work under the guise of a learning experience is the perfect way for an intern to find out about the pros and cons of a particular type of business, or even a specific company, or government agency. There is little risk for either party as the arrangement is usually much looser than a “normal” employment contract. The employment relationship exists to enable both parties to see if they are a fit for each other.

When it comes to unpaid internships in Australia, the nation is at the forefront of giving opportunities to potential interns wanting to work with Islander peoples and Aboriginal communities. The Aurora Internship Program is a leader in this field and interns can be placed at a native title focused organisation, supporting their legal or research staff; or at a host organisation working in the broader Indigenous sector. Interns should expect a healthy balance of challenging and interesting tasks along with a fair amount of administrative duties (database entry, filing etc.) Most NTRB and PBC internships involve native title and land rights-related work, but the work may also cover constitutional law and local government regulations.

The large international companies are set up for unpaid vocational placements, with many having HR departments with a dedicated team looking after the whole internship program on behalf of the business. These companies have come to rely on the system to enhance their employment program and keep their employees up to speed with fresh input and ideas which interns can often bring to the table. Companies offering internships often have part-time or summer internship programs for those who cannot undertake full-time internship opportunities. The human resources department will sometimes combine the work experience aspects with career advice and even specialist programs in areas like accounting and engineering.

A well run and thought through internship opportunity is a great way to kickstart any career – with employers looking to hire the best from their intern groups – negating the need for any interview or assessment process. Because of the effects of the pandemic many companies are now offering virtual internships. A virtual internship program is more flexible than a physical one as there is far less disruption to the internal workings of a busy department. The intern becomes, in effect, a freelancer acting as an extra pair of hands to the team. This makes it easier to administer from the HR (Human Resources) Department as there are no issues of attendance, start dates and allocation of staff to supervise and mentor.


A key aspect of the internship, whether physical or virtual, is in allowing the participants to “pick and mix” within an existing organisation’s different departments and functions to learn how the jigsaw fits together and which pieces they would prefer to explore further. As we mentioned, industries like accounting and engineering have a long history of internship programs and are geared towards these as a major part of their recruiting process.

Newer industries, like digital marketing, find that with the pandemic making new demands on their time, the opportunity to take on extra staff is a godsend. A digital marketing agency encompasses a wide area of skills and this means that there is scope for more roles than in a conventional business model. It is now commonly accepted that there are eight stages in a “customer value journey,” and each of these stages needs a specific skill set to move prospects and customers seamlessly through the process.

Each of the eight stages demands input from:

  • Digital advertising
  • Search marketing
  • Content marketing
  • Social media marketing
  • Community management
  • Copywriting

These six facets of digital marketing embrace everything from a knowledge of SEO marketing (Search Engine Optimisation), design (which includes knowledge of fonts and colour palettes), understanding of the main and more obscure social media channels and analytics and metric measurement, along with AB and split testing – among other skills. Writing – including copywriting, sales writing, video and radio scriptwriting, and content writing – is also a huge area of digital marketing.

The vast choice of options leaves plenty of scope for any virtual intern to see how theory is put into practice with real clients and businesses. For example, interns will often be able to see the start of a marketing campaign from the initial client meetings, where strategies and intentions are hammered out, right through to how calls to action will be put over. This will expose them to techniques like white papers which can be downloaded, checklists, video resources, or the sale of low-value items with a view to upselling.

These methods also embraced techniques like “full-funnel” where the customer is taken through awareness, evaluation, and conversion. Full-funnel also depends on concepts like TOFU, MOFU and BOFU – top of the funnel, middle of the funnel and bottom of the funnel, respectively. It is within these sections of the funnel that separate skill sets come to the fore.

Blogs, vlogs, infographics, photographs, audio podcasts, videos, educational resources, webinars and events, customer stories and case studies, quizzes and surveys, for example, are just some of the items needed to move the customer journey forward. It’s also important to know which lead source channels perform best for businesses and what marketing qualified leads are so that you can focus your lead generation efforts and budget towards finding and nurturing quality leads with a higher propensity to convert customers for a product or service in a shorter period of time. Working as an intern will give you a good overview of, not just the separate skills, but how they all hang together and work in concert with each other to, ultimately, sell the company’s product or service.