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Unpaid internships: are they exploitative?

AKA how to get experience with no experience

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There’s a fine line between getting experience and getting exploited.

And unpaid internships tread that line a bit too closely, in my opinion.

But what else can you do when every job application requires years of experience?

Keep reading for how to get paid opportunities with no experience - step #7 is my favourite.

P.S. I had a field day with the memes today…more memes at the end 😂 gotta meme the pain away

Why people take unpaid internships

  • Get valuable work experience

  • See what it’s like working in a team

  • Gain a professional network

  • Seek mentorship to learn faster

  • Understand the industry and potential career path

  • Improve chances of getting paid in the future

Proponents of unpaid internship say it’s worth it if you get something in return, like:

  • Learning skills you can’t learn anywhere else (i.e. teamwork, collaboration, stakeholder management)

  • Lifelong mentors/network of people to support you professionally

  • Improving earning potential in the future

But these are NOT guarantees.

They’re also inaccessible for people who can’t afford to do unpaid internships.


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Why people don’t take unpaid internships

  • Financial burden - can’t afford living costs if not paid

  • Exploitative - free labour

When unpaid internships are normalised, you’ll get more and more companies doing this:

It’s especially unfair for people who cannot afford (time or money) to work for free.

Thankfully, there are some alternatives to unpaid internships I’ve found.

Alternatives to unpaid internships: step-by-step guide

Note: these steps do not need to be done in order, and can be done at the same time.

If you’re still struggling with the Catch-22 of needing experience to get work experience, here’s what you can do.

1. Understand yourself

What are your goals?

What do you like to do?

Use your answers to explore potential career paths you might like.

Listen to our Careers Wiki podcast to hear experts talk about their day-to-day jobs.

2. Network

“Your network is your net worth.”

But what if you have no connections to start with?

Don’t let it stop you - create your own opportunities.

That’s what Christiana did - she reached out to professionals (complete strangers) on LinkedIn.

Your to-do list:

You learn a lot faster with others.

3. Leverage previous experience

Had a job before?

Worked on a group project at school?

Taken an online course (like EntryLevel’s)?

Came up with a creative solution to a problem in your life?

Then you have some experience that can help you land the job.

If you’re transitioning careers, you’ve got even more experience you can share to help you stand out. Here’s an example: https://www.entrylevel.net/post/how-to-fix-your-linkedin-profile-a-guide-for-career-changers-in-ux-design

4. Get project experience

Many courses have projects included. Look for courses with a hands-on portfolio component, like EntryLevel’s programs.

But do your research - some courses require $2,000 tuition for a job guarantee, which always raises my eyebrows. To me, that implies that people who can afford to pay for a job will get one, regardless of their skills. More money = more opportunities.

But that shouldn’t be the norm. If you’re dedicated to learning and keen to use feedback to improve, your skills should speak for themselves.

That’s why I always look for companies that didn’t discriminate based on degree requirements in their hiring process. By evaluating based on skills and not a degree, the hiring process is more equitable, especially for people who cannot afford a university education.

Example of a company that hires based on skills rather than a degree. And because I don't gatekeep: the company is Toggl.

5. Use project experience to get paid work

Once you have a great project (and get feedback on it from mentors so you can improve), you can:

  • Freelance

  • Work with small, local businesses

  • Get testimonials from clients you work with

At this point, you don’t need to charge a lot. This experience can help you earn more money in the future, especially as you build connections and get more recommendations for your work.

6. Optimise your job search process

Treat your job search like a product. Keep iterating and making improvements based on the feedback you get.

Optimise each of the following:

7. Find paid project platforms

Research local organisations that provide paid, short-term, and project-based opportunities to entry-level job seekers.

Here are a few I found for Canada and US.

If you can’t find one that exists in your country, perhaps a project for your portfolio is to create one. You’ll gain lots of valuable experience talking with people in the problem space and working with companies to deliver the solution to users.


Vower - get points to shop for items: https://www.vower.org/


Venture For Canada Intrapreneurship program: https://ventureforcanada.ca/programs/intrapreneurship


Rize Student project-based work: https://rizestudent.com/

Pangea freelancing platform: https://pangea.app/?utm_source=entrylevelnet

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