Internships: Lawful, Unlawful, or a Labor of Love?

Unpaid Internships
With more than 11 million people unemployed in the U.S. and the unemployment rate at 7.5%, more college students are looking at unpaid internships as a last resort to gain hands-on experience and real-world references for their resumes. A decade ago the job market was more promising for college students: the unemployment rate was around 4%. Driven by a more stable economy, companies were willing to pay interns a salary or an honorarium back then. Today, it is more difficult for college students to find paid internships. Since 2008, the growth of unpaid internships has grown from 10% to 80% because more companies are finding other ways to cut costs. One such way is hiring internswithout payto work full-time hours and do back-breaking work for college credit and experience.

Unpaid internships do have their advantages and disadvantages. Let's look at a few:


  1. Gaining real world experience that you cannot gain in a classroom setting.
  2. Acquiring new skills and sharpening existing skills.
  3. Making important contacts with supervisors and senior-level employees.
  4. Although the job might be temporary, you will gain transferable skills.
  5. Working on and completing a portfolio of work during the internship.
  6. At the end, you will have job references and a work history to include on a resume.

(Possible) Disadvantages

  1. Forced to work long hours.
  2. Working late nights, weekends, or holidays to compensate for lack of staff.
  3. Work might be dull and menial.
  4. No guarantee of a job after completing the internship.
  5. Company could be "exploiting" interns as a form of free labor.
  6. No financial compensation.

Statistics show that many companies have slashed their budgets and are hiring fewer employees. This means fewer jobs are available for college graduates. A high grade point average is great to have, but having existing work experience seems to matter more these days.

College graduates, unable to find paying positions in their new careers, may also decide, as a desperate remedy, to intern, even if they do not receive pay. The goal, of course, is to gain valuable experience and business connections and hopefully a salaried position at the end. That is the ideal goal, but it may not unfold that way. Instead interns might find themselves working long hours and doing menial work for free coffee and 30-minute lunch breaks. At some companies that I have read about in the news, interns are receiving little career-related training; instead they do lowly administrative tasks like answering the phones and ordering office supplies.

Such belittlement and abuse have caused a number of interns to file lawsuits against companies. The lawsuits claim that these companies are abusing their unpaid internship programs as a source of "free labor."

Check out:

Seeking Justice For Unpaid Interns, One Lawsuit At A Time (
'Charlie Rose' Interns Settle Unpaid Wages Lawsuit (
Hollywood Interns: Fox Lawsuit Likely to Break Ground (
Former Intern Sues Hearst Over Unpaid Work and Hopes to Create a Class Action (

Presumably, other interns in similar situations have not filed lawsuits for fear that their actions might harm their careers now and in the future. It can also be very costly and challenging to prove if said company had abused any laws governing "non-employed" apprentices.

When the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1947 that "an intern cannot be an employee," the U.S. Dept. of Labor had to draft up six rules for companies to follow if using unpaid interns. These six rules are:

  1. At the very least, the internship training must be equivalent to what students would receive in class.
  2. The internship must benefit both the employer and the intern.
  3. Interns cannot replace paid employees; instead, interns should work under them to gain valuable experience.
  4. Companies using interns must not reap any immediate benefits.
  5. Interns are not guaranteed employment after interning.
  6. Both the intern and the employer understand that the employer does not have to offer pay during the internship.

These six rules make it difficult for companies to use unpaid interns without giving "something in return," but they do not really help with situations where companies use interns for "questionable" free labor.

If you are looking for an internship, do your research on the companies that interest you. Make sure past interns have had good experiences and reaped many benefits during their internships. A search on Google can also help you locate companies that have abused interns or have lawsuits filed against them.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on unpaid internships.

Brian Scott