Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Unpaid Internships: Uncool And (Often) Illegal

Ah, my dear readers. There has been a lot of conversation amongst the unemployeds that your MatchGirl spends her time with about internships. Specifically, unpaid internships.

Almost every time I hang out with a fellow unemployed, especially on who is a creative, the conversation, inevitably turns to our job hunts. And, no matter the site they are scrolling, to the sheer and overwhelming amount of unpaid internships that are offered. Now, I have written here before about how annoying it is to click on a job for, say, Executive Assistant to the CEO or Handbag Designer and read all the way down to the bottom of the posting, the paragraphs of job description, the 20 to 50 necessary skills and computer programs that one must know ... and then *poof*, it's an unpaid internship. A great learning experience.

Well, today on Facebook (via Tumblr), Rick Webb, posted a link to the Labor and Employment Law Blog on the legality of the unpaid internship. If you scroll through the comments section, there seems to be a bit of controversy around this blog, but your MatchGirl thinks that's par for the course whenever one challenges the status quo. Whether this guy is "for real" or not, it seems that the following points, at least, make sense when considering the legality of an unpaid internship.

The U.S. Department of Labor has outlined a list of criteria that ALL must be met in order for an internship to be unpaid.

1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under 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 completion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

From the above list, #4 is really the key one – all the others will follow from whether the employer derives any immediate benefit from the activities.

The main reason that you do not see more lawsuits regarding unpaid internships is that the interns are very unlikely to sue. In most cases, they fear being blacklisted, as they will undoubtedly need to use the internship as a reference to get any future work.

In a management position at my former place of employment, your MatchGirl was in charge of interns and, while they were helpful in doing some data entry and filing and research that saved me some time, I'm not sure we really benefited from their work. My employer was often trying to find interns to do graphic design work, etc... as we did not really have the funds to pay a competitive salary to a pro, but there are problems in this - especially when getting an intern who is a college student working for credit.

When a person applies for an unpaid internship, they are generally a college student who is interning for credit and to learn the realities of their field. And while the intern expects that they will be doing some grunt work - getting some coffee, filing some invoices - they also expect that there will be someone there, to whom they are reporting, who will act as a mentor, who will show them a few things and who will be able to answer their questions about their chosen path to future employment - paid employment.

Your MatchGirl realizes that the economy is rough. She knows that employers are trying to save money whenever possible. But she thinks that asking a skilled person to work for free is simply not the way to run a business. And, perhaps, not even a legal one. So please, my lovelies, when considering those internships, pay careful attention to what they will be asking of you and what you will be getting out of it. Getting helpful hints on Final Cut Pro from a professional editor, while making the occasional lunch run, is cool. If you're a student or making a career change, you'll get the chance to learn some things and make some connections - we all know that networking is the best way to get a job. But if it seems you will be doing the work of a person they've recently removed from the payroll, then you're being taken advantage of and just walk away.

You'll find something that pays.
We all will.


  1. Unpaid internships are awful, especially because you end up paying a lot of money for transport and food and other things to be at your job.

  2. We have a few college students online and we love your blog postings, so well add your rss or news feed for them, Thanks and please post us and leave a comment back and well link to you. Thanks Jen , Blog Manager. college internships