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What is the Difference between an Internship and a Vacation Program?

Employers across all industries prioritise practical work experience when hiring for jobs. For the switched-on student, participation in an internship or vacation program is an important step along the career pathway. Some confusion exists as to the difference between an “internship” and a “vacation program”. While they are similar in that they provide training and experience, a vacation program is more specific than other internships in structure, timing and size of organisation.


An internship is a supervised (and often paid) work placement which provides the intern with training and experiencerelevant to their field of study. Internships take many forms, ranging in duration from a few weeks to six-months or more. The length of the work placement depends on the organisation. Some internships may count for academic credit towards a relevant degree. For example, in engineering, students are required to complete work placement before they are allowed to graduate.

Internships may be structured in a variety of ways:

Paid internship

Paid internships are the most desirable for students, not only because they financially reimburse them for their work, but because they are linked to higher employment rates and higher graduate salaries than unpaid internships. Most internship programs with medium-to-large local corporations are paid, often calculated at a percentage based on their current stage in their tertiary education. Small-to medium businesses can also offer paid internships, although perhaps not at the same rate. Large organisations may have a structured training and development internship program that guides the student as they complete their work experience. They may also involve a lot of “menial” work such as getting coffees and printing documents. Internships at SMEs tend to be less structured, but may provide a student with the opportunity to “pick up” and learn from example the habits and practices of business owners, managers and employees across all functions of the business, to whom they perhaps would not have access if they were employed in a specific subsection of a larger company.

Businesses aren’t the only organisations to offer paid internships either. Non-profit organisations, despite having less money to work with, may still offer paid work because the work that a paid intern provides to the organisation is of higher quality than that of an unpaid worker.

Unpaid internship

Unpaid internships are on the decline in Australia, after several crackdowns by Fair Work for exploitation of students. The formal aspect of an internship and the type of work that is usually expected (more complex compared to a “work experience” job and involving responsibility equal to that of a paid employee) means that interns are entitled to at least a minimum/industry award wage under the Fair Work Act 2009, unless they are undertaking “vocational work”. The majority of internships do not fall under “vocational work”, which is defined under the Act as unpaid work that is a required for the completion of an authorised VET Australian-based education or training course.

Volunteer work is different to an “unpaid internship”, as it is done for the cause rather than for money or for the training. Volunteer work has none of the formal training that is expected in an internship. This kind of work however can give practical experience in many different skills, and is an asset on a resume.

Paid-for-internship (international internship)

Some organisations offer opportunities to intern overseas in a large multinational or foreign company. They act to connect students with the foreign employers, and coordinate all the travel, accommodation, orientation and on-site support for the intern’s international placement. While interning with these MNCs provides valuable training, work and intercultural experience, the internship costs at least several thousand dollars. The work at the foreign company is also usually unpaid (because of student visa restrictions and the type of work involved).

Applying for an internship

Since there are so many kinds of internships possible, there is no one way to apply. Organisations that have structured internship programs already established can be contacted easily, and candidates need only to send their application to the relevant authorities (whether by mail or online) before the “closing date”. However many organisations, particularly SMEs, do not specify in the outset whether they offer internships. In these cases the student must be pro-active and contact the organisation (usually by email), respectfully asking whether they would ever consider offering an internship, (detailing what interests them about the company, and pitching what the student can offer them, should they be accepted as an intern). If the organisation shows interest, then the student’s CV should be sent through and all communications should be followed up in a timely manner. An interview will be held as part of the selection process. In the interview, the usual protocols apply – honesty, interest in the organisation, consideration, the ability to apply one’s own experiences to illustrate things like teamwork and leadership, and fluent communication skills.

Vacation Program

A “vacation program” is a specific type of internship, which usually takes place during the summer vacation period from late November to early March (but which is also sometimes offered in the winter). They are offered to students in their penultimate year and are highly contested, both for the superior work experience and because students that perform well in a vacation program will often be offered a graduate position the following year.

Features of vacation programs

Vacation programs usually run for 12 weeks between November and March. Companies that offer these programs make a great effort to provide an exceptional work experience in multiple areas of the company, since they hope that the student will in the future become an asset to their organisation. The student is given opportunities to complete and take responsibility for challenging tasks, and to demonstrate leadership and teamwork. In addition they may go through a structured training and/or “personal development” program designed to supplement their professional skills. Mentoring is provided, and “buddy” programs (in which the student works with an experienced graduate who provides them with guidance and support) are also common. Depending on the industry and organisation, the program may also entail travel to remote locations. For example, vacation work in an engineering, mining or consulting firm often includes travel inter- and intra-state to visit worksites.

Vacation work is paid work – students are expected to contribute and add value to the company, and are compensated accordingly. The median pro rata salary for vacation programs in 2014 was $53 000 (which means for 12 weeks’ work a student can earn around $12 230). Because vacationers are so sought-after for graduate programs, (with two-thirds of companies offering graduate programs also offer vacation work), this payment is also designed to give a favourable impression of the company to the student, so that they will want to work there again after they graduate.

Vacation programs typically cost more to run than other, less structured kinds of internships, and hence are only offered by big corporations and government departments. Because there are less vacation positions available overall (with most companies offering five or fewer positions) and because they are highly regarded by future employers, competition for vacation programs is high, with most companies receiving hundreds of applications each year. Only the very best candidates will be selected as worthy of the company’s investment.

Recruiters for vacation programs look for students doing a relevant degree, a deep interest in the industry and a passion for the type of work they do. Although usually anyone with an above-credit average will be considered, high academic achievement is advantageous, since it signifies discipline and a good work ethic – both qualities that employers rate highly. Teamwork and interpersonal skills are especially important, as are strong verbal and written communication skills.

Applying for a vacation program

Most applications for summer vacation programs open in February, with deadlines occurring from March/May. Rolling recruitment is becoming more common. In rolling recruitment, candidates may apply at any time of the year, and (if found to be satisfactory) will be hired when the next vacancy occurs. This can give students more flexibility, but may make it more difficult for some to plan their study and be disadvantageous to the structure and timing of the program.

Application to a vacation program is a multi-stage process that differs among organisations in terms of exact format. The first stage is usually an online application that involves submitting a resume to the company website or email, and may also include a company-specific essay or personal justification as to why the student should be considered for the program. Those who progress to the next stages may be asked to undergo aptitude and/or psychometric testing (which may take place online or at a testing facility). The applicant may be interviewed several times – via phone or video during the earlier stages of the application – then in person for the final interview.

Affirmative action in pre-graduate work

Certain disadvantaged groups are often targeted for pre-graduate work such as vacation work or internships. Among these groups women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are particularly targeted, in an attempt to redress inequalities currently existing in the workplace. Despite this, out of the pre-graduate intake women only make up 40.6% and Aboriginal students 2.9%. Other minorities are even less represented, particularly LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and Torres Strait Islander students. This indicates that although organisations are making an effort, there is still a way to go in establishing true workplace diversity.

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