Paid vs unpaid internships in South Africa

 ·4 Sep 2016

Is an internship ever worth it? Absa interviewed two interns – one who’d taken up a paid internship, and another who’d worked unpaid – and asked them what their experience was like, and if they were happy with the outcome.

But first, what is an internship and what should you expect if you’re offered one?

Traditionally, an internship is a type of on-the-job training, and it’s usually a temporary position offered to students who’ve graduated and are looking for job experience to flesh out their CVs, the kind of experience you can’t necessarily learn from a textbook but is still vital for your career.

What’s become an unspoken rule of interning is that most internships are unpaid. If interns are lucky, they’ll land a spot on an internship programme that offers a stipend of sorts, enough to cover transport or food. But with money out of the picture, the pool of who can actually afford to intern shrinks considerably.

The paid internship

For Jo’burg-based Heather Clancy, now 27, taking up an internship was a way for her to beef up her CV. A politics and philosophy graduate, before working as an intern at a small research company, Heather had only worked “in a shop and in a kitchen.”

While the research internship provided her with R2,000 monthly, which barely made a dent on her living expenses, Heather says the six months were a gentle start to the world of work. However, the 9-to-5 work day didn’t leave much time for her to supplement her income. “My brother gave me an extra stipend,” she says.

This is the predicament in which most interns find themselves. They are working full days but their finances do not reflect this. They still have to get assistance from family. This part of interning can create conflicts, especially in a situation where these interns are expected to help out at home now that they are working.

The unpaid internship

Nozuko Poni, now 29, found herself in a similar situation back in 2011. Freshly graduated from film and media studies and not interested in working at a call centre, she took an internship at a newly established youth magazine. She got to write and style shoots for the magazine and its website. However, they only provided a transport allowance to participants.

“Explaining to my mother why I took my handbag and went to work every day, but did not get paid, was tricky – she didn’t even know what an internship was! She was not impressed. That’s part of the reason why I left after three months and went to work as customer services consultant and administrator,” says Cape Town-based Nozuko.

Even though she didn’t finish the six-month internship, she had made great connections while working at the magazine. Nozuko was able to land freelance writing and styling work. Currently, she works as an account executive for the company that owns the publication which originally took her on board as an intern.

Is an internship worth it?

Most interns agree that internships are attractive because they help you get a foot in the door in your chosen industry and look great on your CV. You also learn important soft skills like business etiquette, conflict resolution and how to work in a team.

Ultimately, deciding whether you can afford to take an unpaid internship, and if it will be valuable to your career, is up to you.

This article was published by Absa, and can be found here

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