Would you work for free?
The answer is a resounding “yes” for thousands of college students and recent college graduates across the country who are taking on unpaid internships. Due to the economic downturn, many companies are hiring unpaid interns in order to reduce costs, and job-hungry students will take on anything to boost their resumes in a dreary labor market.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, a big problem with this increase in unpaid internships is that a number of them may be considered illegal. They fail to satisfy specific legal criteria by not giving school credit, or they assign interns robotic work that no one else wants to do. After all, the key guideline for an internship is that the intern should be the person benefiting, not the company. Unfortunately, many interns in these situations are afraid to file complaints, and some just don’t care.

I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of unpaid internships myself (working for school credit isn’t very fun, trust me), but I don’t regret that I had one either. As a college freshman last year, I wasn’t expecting to get a paid internship for my first summer anyway, so I happily took on an unpaid internship at Merrill Lynch’s wealth management department.

Let me set the record straight: As an unpaid intern, you will inevitably have to do busywork. However, you will also learn so much about the industry you’re in if you truly make the effort. Observe the people around you, immerse yourself in the company’s day-to-day activities and ask your mentor lots of insightful questions.

In the end, research the company and make sure to ask questions at your interview to see if your job duties will make the internship an adequate learning experience, even if it’s unpaid. Also keep in mind that an unpaid internship might just be your golden ticket—thanks to last summer’s work experience, I landed myself a paid internship this summer.

Photo via Peer Corner