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Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may find it harder to get unpaid work experience. Masa Israel Journey/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Unpaid work experience is widespread but some are missing out: new study

Most young Australians undertake unpaid work experience as part of their education or training, to maintain entitlements to social security, or simply to improve their job prospects. But those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have those opportunities and those on placements associated with government benefits enjoy their experiences less.

These are some of the key findings from our new report, funded by the Commonwealth Department of Employment.

We also found that unpaid internships or placements may involve significant costs for those who undertake them.

The research, the first of its kind in this country, surveyed 3800 people aged 18-64 about work experience. It specifically excluded volunteering, such as at a church, charity or club.

Who does unpaid work experience

In our study, more than half of participants aged 18-29 had recently participated in unpaid work experience. A quarter of those aged over 30 also had at least one placement.

However our results show there are some who have trouble accessing unpaid work experience. We found that young Australians (18-29 years old) from lower socio-economic backgrounds (as defined by parents’ highest level of education) were less likely to have participated.

The results also show that people living in a capital city were more likely to have undertaken internships or placements than those living elsewhere. Participation rates were also higher for men compared to women.

Unpaid work experience extends beyond traditional student placements in medicine, nursing and teaching, and internships in professional fields such as creative industries, law and finance. Our research revealed work experience in a wide range of professional, intermediate and entry-level roles across many industries.

Of those undertaking unpaid work experience, 36% reported that their most recent period of unpaid work experience lasted over one month. A similar proportion (37%) had undertaken a single placement, while 26% had two such experiences. One in five participants had undertaken five or more episodes in the past five years.

Reasons for participating in unpaid work experience

Around half of all unpaid work experience occurred in connection with a formal course of tertiary or VET study or secondary schooling. This is unsurprising, given the emphasis that education providers and employers now place on work-integrated learning. However, this means half of all arrangements occur outside of education or training curricula.

In our survey, people also completed unpaid work experience because: they were required to do so to maintain Youth Allowance or Newstart payments, they were part of an unpaid trial during a recruitment process, it was unpaid training following an offer or employment, or for some other reason.

The fact that so many young people did this sort of work experience for some other reason indicates that many placements are being self-organised by students or job-seekers outside formal course requirements, or that organisations are establishing internships and recruiting participants for their own purposes.

This is significant because unpaid internships or placements like this may breach minimum wage laws, unless they are connected to an authorised course of education or training, or do not involve productive work.

Benefits and costs of participating in unpaid work experience

Consistent with previous studies that highlight the benefits of increased workplace exposure, participants in our study were highly satisfied with their unpaid work placements.

They reported developing skills and knowledge, improving employment and career prospects, and improving their networks. Unpaid work experience also helped them decide whether that field of work was suitable.

The people who were most satisfied with unpaid work experience were those who did it as part of study. Those who were least satisfied did their unpaid work experience as a requirement of Youth Allowance or Newstart or for “other reasons”.

Our study showed 27% were offered paid employment by the host organisation following the period of unpaid work experience. Those who were in unpaid trials or training, or arrangements associated with Youth Allowance or Newstart, were the most likely to receive an employment offer.

However, our data doesn’t tell us whether these jobs were sustained or short-lived. Nor does it give any clear indication as to whether participating in work experience actually improves the chances of finding a job.

Our research revealed a variety of costs associated with unpaid work experience. For example, over a quarter of respondents reduced their hours of paid employment in order to participate in unpaid work and 20% organised and paid for their own insurance. These costs may mean some can afford to access this work experience while others can’t.

More than one in ten respondents paid money to a broker, agent or directly to the host organisation to take part and one in four had to travel longer than one hour to attend. Among the study participants, 17% lived away from their usual home to participate.

Professions such as politics, journalism, law and finance are dominated by those from privileged backgrounds. This is not only because existing social networks promote opportunities, but because wealthy families can afford to support their children while undertaking work experience. In our survey, young people from high socio-economic backgrounds were more likely than other young people to say that they cut back their paid work hours, paid for their own insurance, travelled for more than an hour or lived away from home.

What this means for policies on employment

In May 2016, the Australian Government announced a A$840 million Youth Jobs PaTH (Prepare-Trial-Hire) Programme. The policy includes skills training and access to voluntary internships of four to 12 weeks for job seekers under 25. It also provides a bonus youth wage subsidy paid to organisations that go on to employ young job seekers.

Given how widespread unpaid work placements have become, the policy may provide much-needed resources to host organisations to support better learning, career and employment outcomes for participants.

However, the government could learn from how education institutions structure their unpaid work experience placements. The involvement of an education institution provides a learning framework and support around unpaid work placements that a government-led initiative may struggle to emulate. Educational institutions may also be supervising or screening placement opportunities to ensure they provide a positive learning environment.

The socio-economic gap for access to unpaid work experience we identified will widen if unpaid work becomes more common or a de facto prerequisite for securing ongoing employment, so governments should address this. This could include scholarships or additional support for low-income participants in particular.

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