Unpaid Internships: The Cautious Approach

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.

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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.

Lauren Berger (@internqueen) is known as “The Intern Queen” after completing 15 internships during her four years of college. Berger is currently CEO of Intern Queen Inc, an internship destination for students to connect with the employers of their dreams. Berger’s personalized internship matching site is seen by thousands of employers, students, and career professionals each day. Berger was recently named #5 on Business Week’s Annual “Top 25 Entrepreneurs 25 and Under List." Berger’s National Speaking Tour included over 50 college campuses across the nation for Fall 2009/Spring 2010. Berger has been featured in over 100 media outlets including the New York Post, Washington Post, Los Angeles Business Journal, ABC News, and more. The Intern Queen’s National Speaking Tour reaches over 50 college campuses nationwide.

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3 Comments on “Unpaid Internships: The Cautious Approach

  1. Well written and to the point. It’s sad to hear about well managed, good, internship programs are going away due to fear. On the flip side, it’s good to see the scams and abusive programs being talked about and revealed.

    I think it definitely comes down to better education about the rules as well as some restructuring of the U.S. Dept of Labor guidelines to allow for some flexibility in modern occupations.

  2. Thanks for writing this article. The cautious approach is the best approach. The New York Times piece was widely circulated in my organization and definately woke up some of our managers to the fact that HR was not just being alarmist when we talk about these issues. I appreciate the fact that the DOL came out with an updated and clearer way for us to interpret these rules and I wouldn’t have known about it had I not read this piece.

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