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What you need to know about internships in Australia

Internships are an increasingly popular pathway taken by university students eager to jump into a job when they graduate. These highly sought-after positions are where Australia’s next generation of skilled workers are shown the ropes by professionals across a range of industries.

Communications graduate Cabrini Broderick learned the value of internships after dismal job-hunting results.

“I wasn’t necessarily being knocked back for interviews for the all the jobs I applied for, but I became very aware that I didn’t have the necessary experience or skills to jump straight into the corporate environment – even at an entry level position,” she says.

“With little to no corporate experience it was difficult to put together a strong resume let alone get an interview whilst competing with people with industry experience.”

The skills and knowledge you acquire from being involved in the particular industry you want to work in is priceless and surrounding yourself with people who have years of expertise is invaluable.

Broderick landed a three-month internship at communications agency History Will Be Kind and was then offered a job as an account co-ordinator.

“I would highly recommend internships to anyone looking for career advancement, particularly students,” she says.

“A degree just isn’t enough when you are competing with people who have some sort of experience. The skills and knowledge you acquire from being involved in the particular industry you want to work in is priceless and surrounding yourself with people who have years of expertise is invaluable.”

‘Mutually beneficial’

Internships at large, multinational companies are the most hotly contested. Accounting giant EY hired more than 450 interns in the 2016 financial year. EY’s Oceania campus recruitment lead Melinda Woodlock says candidates are constantly upping the ante to secure an internship.

“Application numbers are rising each year and students are expected to demonstrate involvement in a range of extra-curricular activities in addition to balancing casual employment and university studies,” she says.

“The recruitment process is also quite rigorous with employers now using a range of assessments including online applications, gamification, situational judgement tests, aptitude tests, interviews and assessment centres.”


“Internships give us the opportunity to really get to know a student and evaluate their suitability for a graduate position.”

Internships can be mutually beneficial to employers and students. They help graduates edge out the competition when it comes to finding a job and give bosses a chance to assess whether students would be a good fit for the company.

“Internships give us the opportunity to really get to know a student and evaluate their suitability for a graduate position,” Woodlock says.

“It’s a two-way process. The internship also provides students with a good insight into what it would be like to work at EY and if starting a career with us is the right decision for them.

“We provide the interns with real work, learning and development, and a taste of our social activities to ensure they get a genuine experience of what to expect if offered a permanent role.”


But as internships become more competitive, concerns about exploitation grow louder.

Complaints of unpaid labour usually reach Deb McDonald when it’s too late. The associate director at Melbourne Careers says there are structures to protect students from being used, but sometimes both employers and students ignore the rules.

“It’s really hard on students because they desperately want to get practical experience,” she says.

“There are some people out there who would take advantage of that, but your typical big companies, middle size companies would be really aware of their legal obligations around the Fair Work Act.

“It (exploitation) is more likely where you find freelance work or piece work, or really small businesses or start-ups or things like that. Some of it is because they don’t fully understand the legislation and for some it’s because they are just trying to get as much as they can out of students without paying.”


Statistics around internships in Australia are sketchy, but data from advocacy group Interns Australia shows only 12.7 per cent of interns are paid. In a recent Interns Australia annual survey, 86.4 per cent of interns say they were unpaid or paid below minimum wage and 0.8 per cent were given travel or meal reimbursements. Further findings reveal only 21 per cent of the 503 respondents were offered a job after completing their internship.

Internships are unpaid if the intern is simply learning or placed at a not-for-profit organization. But the Fair Work Act stipulates that they must be paid if they are doing work.

“Students need to advise the Fair Work Ombudsmen’s office if they feel any laws are being broken,” says Deb McDonald.

“If the jobs have been advertised at their uni, then it’s worth advising the service so unis can ensure jobs advertised are meeting the legal requirements. They can’t act for students as we aren’t lawyers, but we can ensure information they have provided about jobs advertised is accurate.”


The Fair Work Act website outlines a series of questions to help determine whether someone is an employee or an intern.

–       Why is the new recruit there?

Is the person there to gain work experience, or are they contributing to the normal operation of the business? Employees are usually involved in productive work, while unpaid interns are more likely there to observe.

–       How long is the internship?

As a rule, employees occupy longer term positions.

–       What the person is doing and how important is the work to the business?

If an intern is doing work normally carried out by paid employees and is essential to the business or the organisation, they should be considered an employee.

–       Who benefits?

An intern should benefit from the arrangement. When the benefit lies with the hiring organisation, the engaged person should be considered an employee.


Employers caught violating the Fair Work Act risk financial penalities, even if they have repaid the intern for work completed. This was the case in Fair Work Ombudsman v Crocmedia Pty Ltd, 2014 when Crocmedia was ordered to pay penalties of $24,000, even after it agreed to pay two employees their minimum entitlements, amounting to approximately $22,000 in total. In general, individuals breaking the law can face fines of up to $10,800 or $54,000 for companies.

Paris Franke, IML Events Coordinator

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