Work experience and unpaid internships

  • Work experience and internships can be paid or unpaid
  • If you are doing ‘work’ rather than just finding more out about a job, you might be entitled to be paid (even if the organisation isn’t paying you)
  • If your work experience or internship means that you are a ‘worker’ you will have some employment rights

If the job you want needs you to have experience, how do you get the experience you need? If you don’t know what you’d like to do when you start work, how do you find out? Work experience and internships can be good opportunities to find out more about an industry, or a particular job, that you are interested in. Although this isn’t ‘work’, it’s important to know what you can expect.

Work experience is an opportunity to spend some time finding out about a particular job or industry. It’s also a good way of finding out what ‘work’ is like – and how it will be different to school. Some schools will set aside a period of time – may be a week or two weeks – for work experience when pupils are in year 10 or 11. Your work experience might be organised by the school or you might be able to organise it yourself if you want to spend time in a particular organisation. You could also undertake work experience as part of a course of higher or further education. You might also organise your own work experience to try and make yourself more employable.

It’s unlikely that you will be paid during a period of work experience if you are being shown around, ‘shadowing’ someone else and sitting in on everything they do, without doing any tasks for the organisation. The organisation you are doing your work experience with may offer other ‘perks’ like travel expenses.

If you are carrying out specific tasks for the organisation, and you are expected to show up on time and stay for specific hours, you might actually be classed as a ‘worker’. If you are under school leaving age, you won’t be entitled to the National Minimum Wage, but you might want to question whether you are doing work experience or actually working for the organisation. If you are over school leaving age, you might be able to claim the National Minimum Wage.

If you think you should have been paid because of the way your ‘work experience’ was structured, you can report the organisation to HMRC, the Government organisation that deals with the National Minimum Wage.

If you are doing work experience on a placement for a year or less as part of a higher or further education course, you aren’t entitled to be paid for the work you do (although some organisations may agree to pay).

If you’re not ‘working’ you don’t have employment rights, but you should still be treated properly and not made to do anything that would be harmful to your health or development. If you’re doing work experience while you are at school and you don’t feel safe, you should tell your parents or your teacher responsible for the work experience placement.

An internship is also work experience. The term ‘internship’ is usually used in connection with students and graduates who are looking for work experience with the aim of then securing a permanent role in a specific area of work. An internship can be any length of time – but it’s important to know your rights because the longer the internship, the more likely it is that you will be ‘working’. If the work experience you are considering is called an ‘internship’, it is likely that you will have left school – or be over school leaving age.

Many organisations offer unpaid internships. It’s true that an internship can be a really valuable way of gaining experience in an area, but at the same time, you shouldn’t be exploited. If what you are doing amounts to ‘work’ then you should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage. You will have other rights – either as a worker or as an employee depending on the way the internship is structured.

The exception is if your ‘internship’ is volunteering with a charity, a Non-Governmental Organisation (‘NGO’), a voluntary organisation or an associated fundraising body. If you are volunteering with one of these organisations, you do not have to be paid the National Minimum Wage.

If you are doing ‘work’ you will be a worker or an employee. As well as being entitled to the National Minimum Wage, you will also have other protections, depending on your employment status. Find out more about whether you are a worker or an employee here.