Beware of where you intern, unpaid internships may be illegal

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Many students think an internship is a must and thus spend at least a summer interning for no pay and without really learning the business. These types of internships are not worth your time or effort and should be bypassed by all.

Many companies, even large ones, may try to take advantage of legal loopholes or undefined laws. This has led to interns not learning what they thought they would through their experience with the company and has even caused a few lawsuits to be brought against these companies for illegal practices, mainly violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

“They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training. The benefits they may have received — such as knowledge of how a production or accounting office functions or references for future jobs — are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works, not of internships designed to be uniquely educational to the interns and of little utility to the employer. They received nothing approximating the education they would receive in an academic setting or vocational school,” said Judge William Pauley, who presided over a US District court case involving Fox Searchlight’s use of interns.

Contrary to popular belief an unpaid internship does not help with job acquisition. If you are going to spend your time and effort working for a company as an intern, then there is reason to suspect that you will at least get a good understanding of how the company works and first-hand knowledge of the job you may want to work in the future. However, this is less likely to happen for the unpaid intern because some companies see the intern as a form of unpaid menial labor, which is often depicted as the “gopher” whose sole job is to supply other employees with beverages and other services that they don’t have time to do themselves.

“63.1 percent of students with a paid internship under their belt had received at least one job offer. But only 37 percent of former unpaid interns could say the same — a negligible 1.8 percentage points more than students who had never interned,” according to an article by The Atlantic.

It can be hard to figure out which internships may be worth your time. There are, in fact, guidelines set by the US Department of Labor to tell if the internship may be violating the law set forth by the FLSA.

“The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship”

Fact sheet No. 71, which includes these six guidelines plus additional information, can be found at http://webdoc.agsci.colostate.edu/ansc/InternshipUSDeptofLabor.pdf

For a real intern experience, try to find a paid position if possible. It will be more likely that you will find a job and also much more likely the company will take your time there seriously since they are spending money on you being there. If an unpaid internship, as described above, comes along it is actually advantageous for you to skip it and seek another internship or maybe an entry level position in your field.