Consider These Red Flags Before Applying for an Internship With Prior Work Experience

Consider These Red Flags Before Applying for an Internship With Prior Work Experience
Image: iStock/lechatnoir.

Job seekers in Australia with previous work experience are despairing over the lack of opportunities to land themselves a new gig. Some may even be considering taking an internship to get one foot in the door.

However, there are a few things to consider before you start applying. We chatted with Nastasha Hawker, managing director of Employee Matters and author of ‘From Hire to Fire & Everything in Between’ to get her insights on the subject.

You should always get paid for an internship, unless it’s part of your studies

Hawker believes to this day there’s still some confusion in the market about internships, which can result in exploitation of the workforce. This is especially true in today’s climate where job seekers are desperate to get work and job posts are receiving hundreds of applications.

“I would say there is significant confusion around internships and the correct use is often abused,” Hawker explained to Lifehacker Australia over the phone.

“The purpose of internships is that people who are studying in their field can get some work experience to enhance their learning experience. That is the definition of what an internship is, in reality.”

Hawker said many people think that you don’t have to pay interns, but that is completely wrong. The only time that interns don’t need to be paid for their labour is if it forms part of their syllabus or degree. Anyone doing an internship out of their course requirements needs to be compensated with minimum wage.

“If you get this wrong, you’re in danger of breaching the Fair Work Act, and the fines are up to $63,000 for a business and around $12,000 for an individual. You’re also going to have to back pay the intern. There’s no such thing as free labor,” Hawker said.

Is it okay to apply for an internship if you’ve already had some work experience?

Let’s assume you’re not a new graduate and you’ve worked for a year or two. Now, should you apply for an internship because the job market’s so bad no one is getting back to you? Or, because you’ve only been in Australia for less than a year, it might be good to get your foot in the door and get some Aussie experience on your CV?

Hawker, after some consideration, said people may not like the answer.

“Yes, people can apply for an internship, but it’s unlikely they will get the role because they’re overqualified,” she explained. “They will also be competing with recent grads who sometimes bring other ‘newer’ skills with them like social media. It’s one of the reasons why employers love grads as interns.”

However, she said there was another scenario that could play out, where an employer may see the application as an opportunity to hire someone more skilled and pay them minimum wage.

“So they’re getting more than they’re actually paying for, or in some cases where they’re doing the wrong thing. And there are a lot of people that still do that. Internships are not designed for this purpose,” she said.

Hawker’s advice to job seekers is: it’s an incredibly tough market out there and it’s best to look for opportunities that are better suited for you.

“One of the best ways to get your foot in the door is to look look for temporary placement roles,” she said. “And even if it’s more of an administrative role, you’re one step closer to making a name for yourself since you can start to network within the business.”

Is it better to apply for an internship if you’re trying to change careers?

Hawker explained it’s easier to find a job when you have experience in that industry so changing careers may not be the best move in this climate.

“Particularly in Australia, we tend to put people in boxes, and we don’t hire outside that box,” she said. “And so it’s very difficult to break into a different industry, because the recruiter or the hiring manager will just go, ‘They don’t have any experience, I’m not hiring them’.

“Now, I don’t necessarily think that is a good position because in many ways, skills are transferable and can often bring a fresh new perspective for a business.”

Hawker’s concern is come September, or October, things are going to get significantly worse. Jobkeeper payments will end along with all of the mortgage holidays the banks have been giving to people. There’s around $153.1 billion worth of housing debt that’s been put on hold.

“Not all businesses have started cutting down costs and making people redundant yet. But I think it’s going to get a bit worse before it gets better,” she explained. “I think come October, we’re going to be in a more precarious position when it comes to our unemployment rate.”

If you do get an internship, will it put your career off track?

Let’s again assume, hypothetically, somebody gets a job as an intern, and they’ve got a couple of years experience under their belt. Hawker said it could go one of two ways for said person.

“If they get into an organisation, and they show their talents and their skills, their employer would be a fool not to fully utilise their skills, pay them appropriately, and put them in a job where they can add more value to the company,” she explained.

“However, there are still some unscrupulous employers that will continue to pay them the minimum wage, and just get more productivity out of them because they’re overqualified for the role.

“So my advice to someone in that position is, as soon as you see an opportunity to jump, and it’s always easier to find a job from within a job, go and find your next career move.”

How to write your cover letter if you’ve decided to apply for an internship

If you’ve decided to take the plunge and wan to apply for an internship, your cover letter will play a critical role in getting your application noticed.

“I think cover letters are absolutely critical because you usually have between 60 to 90 seconds to make an impression through your application,” Hawker explained.

“So you need to fill in the blanks for an employer that just looks at your CV and says, ‘Well, you know, they’ve got five years of work experience, why are they applying for this internship?’.”

Hawker suggests crafting a story around that because legitimate stories can help improve your chances of getting an internship. It will explain your current situation and why you’re ready to settle for less.


Send us any other career-related questions you may have and we’ll do our best to answer these for you.

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