Whether you’re just starting out in your career or if you’re trying to make the switch to a new company or industry, the numbers don’t lie: interning is now considered mainstream by many employees and employers in Australia.

Recent research shows at least 58 per cent of all Australians aged between 18 and 29 have had at least one unpaid work experience role in the past five years, and one in five have completed more than five unpaid internships. Employers are now advertising all types of internship opportunities ranging from a few weeks to a few months – paid and unpaid – as official and unofficial intern programs.

As a graduate, it can be hard to know which internships are worth investing the time in or if they’re worth it at all, particularly because you’re often working for free or a limited salary. So what are the benefits of interning, and how do you land the right internship to help you kick start your career?

What is an internship and is it a good idea?

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) officially defines an internship as “on-the-job training” with a company. In the broadest sense, an internship is when an organisation offers a graduate or university student the opportunity to gain hands-on work experience for a fixed period of time. Internships have different commitment levels, ranging from one day a week over a few months to full-time for a week, and interns can take on a wide variety of tasks, from shadowing employees to attending company and client meetings.

As a graduate, internships can be a great opportunity to gain practical experience for your resume and to better understand the industry you’re looking to work in. On top of this, many employers tend to bring in interns who show some potential, which means there’s often the chance to land a full-time role or build valuable relationships with key stakeholders.

However, it’s important to pick the right internship opportunity to further your career, otherwise it could end up costing you valuable time and even money.

What are the benefits of interning and are there risks?

Being an intern can pay off tenfold for your career in the long run, helping you get important insights into the industry and arm you with essential skills you’ll need to get started in an entry-level role.

As a graduate, you’re looking to get your foot in the door of your industry and being an intern can be a great way to secure an entry-level role. According to research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, two thirds of paid internships lead to job offers, while one third of unpaid internships end in the offer of employment.

Aside from landing a job, there are plenty of upsides to being an intern:

  • You’ll get to explore your future career path and industry to see if it’s right for you
  • You can gain valuable work experience to put on your resume for future job applications
  • You’ll gain confidence, and learn about your professional strengths and weaknesses
  • You can build a network with other professionals in the field, which may come in handy in the future for finding future job opportunities
  • You may receive financial compensation for your internship
  • While you may not get a job offer from one particular internship, it could lead to a future job opportunity either at that company or another company

While there are many benefits, there are also risks to be aware of. Some internships can be exploitative and may not equip you with the practical skills you need in the industry. Meanwhile, others employers may expect you to do the work of a full-time employee without the full-time salary. There’s also the risk of an internship running indefinitely if the terms aren’t clear from the start and, in some cases, you may also end up out of pocket if you need to cover transport costs in order to get to your internship.

In the end, the benefits of interning often outweigh the risks involved but it all comes down to understanding your employer’s responsibilities, your entitlements and doing your due diligence to find the right internship for you.

The rules of an internship in Australia

The ABC reported there were over 1,000 internship ads placed on Australia’s main job websites between January and April 2018. But not all of these are compliant with the guidelines set out by the FWO.

In a fair internship, the intern is getting the majority of the benefit from the arrangement, and not the employer. According to the FWO, internships should be mainly observational – in other words, interns aren’t expected to contribute to company productivity – and interns should be able to choose what days they come in.

Internships should be for a clear and fixed length of time but there’s no strict guideline on how long an internship should last. On top of this, it is best practice for employers to subsidise any transport or meal costs interns may incur during their internship.

How to land your dream internship

There are plenty of opportunities out there but it’s important to find the best one to help you further your career.

Whether you’re on the lookout for an internship in Sydney or Melbourne, it helps to:

  • Make a list of potential employers you’d like to work with. Some employers advertise roles directly on their website, so be sure to check as well as job board sites like SEEK and Indeed. Even if there isn’t a listing, it’s still worth reaching out to see if the company is willing to take on an intern, or ask if they’re recruiting interns in the near future.
  • Focus on the right skills. Employers want an intern with good time management and communication skills, a willingness to learn, and someone who demonstrates initiative. Make sure to highlight these with examples in your resume and throughout the interview process.
  • Impress with your CV and cover letter for internship. This is the first impression you’ll make, so it’s important to make an impact. Highlight any previous stints you’ve had which may translate to your internship, and be sure to include information on your studies and majors. Don’t be afraid to get creative and use resume tools to make your CV look beautiful.
  • Be professional in your email. Chances are, you will be approaching your potential employer for an internship via email so it’s important to communicate effectively in your initial introduction. While you may want to express your creativity and energy, it’s also important to keep your email succinct and use a professional email address — and don’t forget to triple-check your attachments before sending it off.
  • Be professional but express your enthusiasm during the interview process. Employers are looking for someone with energy and a fresh approach. Dress appropriately and demonstrate your curiosity during the interview by asking questions about the organisation. It’s best practice to also send a follow-up email to thank them for their time and ask about next steps.
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