With unemployment rates up around 10% and thousands of college graduates willing to work for free in order to gain valuable experience, the competition for unpaid internships has grown significantly in the last few years. The New York Times reported on Friday that the number of unpaid internships has grown so much over the last few years that federal agencies like the Labor Department have begun to investigate the legality of many internships nationwide. Because of the decreased availability of jobs that pay, many young people are forced to take positions for the experience they will gain. But is working for a company without getting paid legal?

A Tough Job Market

Although regulators suspect widespread violations, it is generally quite difficult to mount a major investigation because interns often feel vulnerable filing a complaint against their employer. No one keeps official records of the ratio of paid to unpaid internships, but experts estimate anywhere from 25% to 50% are unpaid (and illegal). The Career Development Center at Stanford University reports that the number of unpaid internships posted to its Jobs Board has tripled in the last two years and that students’ eagerness to gain experience fuels companies’ abilities to get away with not paying them. Both also increase the competitiveness of the job market for paid and unpaid jobs.

The Work Matters

Not only is the lack of compensation likely to be illegal, but the work is often unrelated to the desired field of employment. The article sites an internship experience at a film studio where the intern was often required to wipe door handles (to prevent the spread of swine flu) and one where the intern was employed to package and ship clothing items that the magazine she worked for had used in previous photo shoots. Mutual benefits should be among the checkpoints used to judge the legitimacy of any internship, but representation for both sides of various legal battles pending today claim that it is not among the six current criteria, which are outdated and based on a Supreme Court decision from 1947 that was enforced to protect blue collar production workers.

The Department of Labor has outlined six criteria for unpaid internships.  If you are considering taking an unpaid position, make sure that it will meet these criteria before accepting the position.

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Sustaining an Economic Gap

While colleges continue the trend from the 90’s of admitting low-income students to bridge the educational and socio-economic divide, this new trend in internships pushes the gap further apart. Many low-income students cannot afford to work an entire summer for no pay, or they cannot devote enough time away from their part-time jobs during the school year to an unpaid position. Then, when employers require previous related work experience in order to be hired for a paid position, those students are yet again left behind the pack. Like in many areas of life, it is very difficult to create a career path for yourself, but with companies employing illegal tactics (and fewer people) in this economy, finding a job has become a very difficult prospect for recent graduates, especially those who did not intern while students.

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  • formerinterncurrentjobseeker

    As a May 2010 college graduate who has done 4 internships. I have recieved a great deal of value from the experiences. BUT. I have notices exactly what the article mentioned, internship abuse. As I look for fulltime jobs, every interesting position I'm qualified for because of my internships is going to unpaid interns. The amount of internships has definetly increased, and I'm positive these positions are being taken away from paid employees. How great would it be to have your needs fufilled by a 21 year old eager to work for nothing then by a 23 year old who needs 30,000 a year to live on?

    Give me a break.

  • formerinterncurrentjobseeker

    As a May 2010 college graduate who has done 4 internships. I have recieved a great deal of value from the experiences. BUT. I have notices exactly what the article mentioned, internship abuse. As I look for fulltime jobs, every interesting position I'm qualified for because of my internships is going to unpaid interns. The amount of internships has definetly increased, and I'm positive these positions are being taken away from paid employees. How great would it be to have your needs fufilled by a 21 year old eager to work for nothing then by a 23 year old who needs 30,000 a year to live on?

    Give me a break.

  • Jbianco40

    I have seen regular employees abuse interns in order to satisfy their own selfish emotional needs. Seen this done on a continual basis, a general pattern of abuse and unprofessionalism. This is embedded in some corporate cultures. A disgrace to watch.