Unpaid Internships: The Cautious Approach

May 19, 2010
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

In today’s get-it-fast, get-it-now society, we hear about things before we have an opportunity to read about them or see them for ourselves. As an established figure within the internship space and someone who runs on Pacific Standard Time, I always hear about internship news from someone before I have a chance to pull up the actual article.

You can imagine the texts, emails, tweets, and phonecalls I received the day the New York Times headline read, Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal. The irony of this article begins with that headline. If you were to pull up that article today, you would read a different and more correct headline: The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not?

The title of the article is really what bothers me.

Internships in 2010 are the most valuable experiences that students in high school or college can obtain. They are what set aside the strong job candidates from the weak. These experiences can dictate a student’s future, and a lack of internship can lead to lack of a job. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 70 percent of college students leave school with internships on their resume. This is a statistic that cannot be ignored. Internships, paid or unpaid, are necessary for students in order for them to succeed in their future.

A title that puts the words “internship” next to “illegal” sends a poor signal to students thinking about internships, parents supporting internships, and employers providing internships. It counteracts the message that career centers work endless hours to get across. Any article about internships must educate and must seek to inform an audience about the proper ways to structure a legal internship program.

Yes, there are exceptions. There are employers who run illegal programs. These employers need education. They need clear information.

I’ve spoken to plenty of experts in the field who are trading language about employers discontinuing their internship programs because the Times article concerns them. These employers may run excellent internship programs and because they don’t pay students, they think their programs are illegal — which is usually not the case.

I now introduce to you the cautious approach. It means to be careful, to be informed, to be knowledgeable before starting or promoting an internship program. Read the guidelines provided by the U.S Department of Labor, released since the Times article came out, aimed at clearly defining what qualifies a legal internship experience.

Make sure your intern isn’t treated as an employee. Your intern should not be directly generating revenue. Everything your intern does should be in their best interest and for a learning experience. Internships stem from apprenticeships. The student should leave the opportunity with a keen sense of how that industry is run and how to execute some of the daily entry-level tasks in that field. Be cautious. Know your information. Provide these students that learning experience that they deserve.

Internships are not illegal. Make sure your program is properly run.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
The longest running and most trusted source of information serving talent acquisition professionals.