What qualifies as a "paid" internship? Some employers give students a small stipend for the summer, provide a scholarship or pay for housing -- but those amounts often still fall short of minimum wage. Are there any guidelines for this?
Unless the amount paid is equal to the minmum wage (now $7.50 an hour), it does not satisfy the statute. One question that the Labor department, which enforces the law, could not answer is whether a summer subsidy from a school (GW law school gave about $300,000 of them this summer) that works out to be equal to minimum wage satisfies the employer's obligation. It should but they could not give us an answer.
How can colleges monitor student internships and make sure employers are following the law? With so many students doing internships, is such monitoring possible?
It is very hard for colleges and law schools to be sure that the law is being followed when no one knows what the law is as applied to unpaid work. Literally the law applies to everyone who works for someone else, but everyone has always recognized that a person can be a true volunteer and no one violates the law. I can surely work at a soup kitchen, read books to children in a hospital, or stuff envelopes for a charity. The problem is that no one knows what else is proper and what is not. The Labor Department has very few guidelines and most people believe that if an unpaid internship is directly related to and at least loosely supervised by a college or law school, it is legal. But simply having a college write an employer a letter saying the student is getting credit (often ungraded) does not do the trick for most people.
What questions should a student make sure to ask during an internship interview? How should they approach the topic of pay?
This is generally not a baragining situation, which means either there will be pay or not. That does not mean the student should not ask or not take the internship if there is no pay, but it is important to know upfront whetehr there will be pay and if so, how much.
Ross, how did you become interested in unpaid internships? What prompted you to want to write a book?
I did an unpaid internship several years ago, a pretty mundane experience. But at the time I aslo realized just what a pervasive, yet little-understood, phenomenon internships had become: nearly all my friends and classmates had done one. Just about every white-collar field and company seemed to have them. When I couldn't find anything to read on the topic, I decided to start researching myself. When I saw how broad and complex a topic it actually was, I decided I had a book on my hands.
Do unpaid (or barely paid) internships put low-income students at a disadvantage?
Absolutely. Many schools try to set aside some funds to do this and other try to include this as part of their scholarship package. Everyone agrees that internships are important because they enable to students to see what a real job in an area that they might like to work in is like, they get good connections and hopefully a good recommendation, and they improve their resume by showing that they have had real world experience. For many students, it is not just not using their summers to save money that is lost, but they go further in debt just to work for nothing, even if they are lucky enough to be able to live at home, because there are trnasportation and otehr costs that inevitably accompany an internship of any kind
When students take unpaid internships away from home, how do they usually cover their expenses? Are they taking out student loans, bar-tending at night or just relying on their parents?
All of the above. Parents are probably the biggest source of support, effectively subsidzing many employers who should be paying for the work they receive, but a large number of interns put in their own savings, work paying jobs on the side, and double down on loans. There are some very creative solutions out there, like an intern I spoke to who raised several thousand dollars from dozens of friends and relatives to work with the UN in Africa.
I was interested in an unpaid internship to gain experience in computer-generated imagery; plus obain future references. However, their employment contract was too restrictive. So I passed on it. After talking about the interview with friends, I now question their reason for even having the internship. They just wanted output to meet a short term obligation. Should one approach unpaid work with a basic assumption that they want something for nothing. And if, only if, they are willing to help with your career with training and networking should it even be considered?
I think you've got it about right. It's going to be a very rare scenario in which an intern doing real work should not be paid minimum wage. An employer offering unpaid internships should be able to present a well-considered, intensive, structured training program--otherwise, usually best to steer clear.
It looks like this internship was with a for-profit company and not connected to any course work, which makes it almost certainly unlawful unless they were paying minimum wage. Practices like that also harm other works, who are looking for real jobs to support themselves, and taking it would be unfair to them. Most internships with government agencies and non-profits do not replace existing workers and when they say they have no money to pay you, they really don't.
My first unpaid internship: I worked for the City Administrator's Office of Wilkes-Barre, PA. My next internship was with the Luzerne County's DA Office in WIlkes-Barre, PA. My internships helped me gain perspective from a practical point of view about what politics, the law, and public administration were really about in the real world. I got credit for both internships, but I had to pay for them because they are considered courses.
Throughout both undergrad internships, I had to submit regular reports and do a paper about what I learned.
Lots of interns rave about their "real world" experiences -- even if they had to foot the bill to get it. Thanks for sharing your experiences!
If interns are unpaid, do they still have the same workplace protections as paid employees? What happens if an unpaid intern is injured on the job or sexually harassed?
Federal laws providing those kinds of protections have generally been interprested to exclude interns because they are not "employees." The court cases reaching that result may be correct given what the laws say, but Congress should surely change those laws to protect anyone, volunteer or paid employed, from sexual harassment or injury on the job. Fixing the pay issue for interns is more complicated and has many aspects to it that are intension with one another, but there is no reason for Congress not to fix these other worker protection laws.
How does Congress get away with not paying their interns a dime? I'm just stunned about this, because essentially what they are doing is restricting the job applicants to people with rich parents. Maybe that's my answer, but I'm cynical.
Your cynicism is completely justified. Congress has specifically exempted its own interns from the law. They preach job creation but in reality run a patronage mill allowing the well-connected and the well-heeled to land the majority of internships on Capitol Hill.
What industry would you say is the worst offender of unpaid internships and why
Overall, the so-called "glamor industries", including film, fashion, publishing, and the media, are among the worst offenders. Smaller businesses are less likely to pay and offer structured training than larger ones.
I have not done a study or seen any done by others, but the word is that most media companies, which are supposed to be for profit, do not generally pay their interns. I know of some that do, but I am told that many do not. I think most for profit companies that do not pay their interns do it to save money (we all like to do that) and because they know that they will almost never be sued by the labor Department because no intern will complain to it -- because they really want the recommendation from their boss and help ingetting the next job.
My school does not offer credit for internships but they do have this pool of money for unpaid internships. They select students who have an unpaid internship in-hand to get those supplemental funds. Is this a good practice or does it avoid the problem?
Yes, yes, I have heard of a few universities doing this, especially for internships at non-profit organizations. Often the money comes in the form of a scholarship or is sponsored by a donor.
It definitely addresses the issue of a student receiving needed financial assistance, no matter where the help comes from....
And yet the number of students covered is usually quite small, with a few exceptions like the Praxis program at Smith College. The question also arises about what kind of internships should be covered (for-profit ones too?) and whether this isn't a case of colleges subsidizing companies, avoiding the problem exactly as you say.
In an effort to make an internship truly "educational," some employers will require that a student receives academic credit for their unpaid internship -- and often students have to pay for those credits. So, in a way, the student is paying to work. Are any colleges or universities helping out students in this situation?
Some colleges do help out with internship scholarships, but these usually cover only a small portion of people. Career centers have devised zero-credit and transcript notation options which can cut the credit costs for students while still meeting employer requirements. But in general most schools that offer credit for internships are still charging students at or near the regular rate for classes. Too many students are paying their schools in order to work for free off-campus.
That practice helps the equity problem for those students who could not afford an unpaid internship, but the Labor Department will not tell us whether those payments that equal minimum wage satisfy the statute.
Does there need to be more oversight on how these unpaid internships are regulated?
I think the current regulations provide a starting point, and what's needed now is more enforcement. Interns themselves need to step forward, report illegal situations, and demand backpay. The system will only begin to change if a few people are willing to stick their necks out.
Dean Morrison, what prompted GWU to host a conference about the regulation of unpaid internships last fall?
There were several reasons why we hosted the conference. There is considerable confusion as to what the law does and does not permit and we hoped to get some answers. But we did not succeed on that score. Indeed, almost evryone agrees that the law is hopeless confused and that the Labor Department has done almost nothing to clarify it. One problem for the Department is that the law was written over 70 years ago, when there wee no such things as internships -- paid or unpaid -- and so the law itself does not fit very well. Second, we hoped to get out for the public the experiences of students and employers with internships so that everyone could see their importance as well as the grat variety of ways in which they are run. We did a good job on that. Third, we also were able to get out a pretty good pictures of how colleges and law schools run programs that have outside placement components to them because they are a very important part of the internship picture, especially for Washington-based schools. Finally, we hoped to come up with some ideas for going forward and a way to implment the, but so far we have not made much progress on that.
It seems like a sucky cycle. You need internships to get a job, but I need to work (at a place that actually pays money) to meet the bills. So I can't get these internships. And I can't get ahead. Do unpaid internships unfairly favor rich kids and what can the more lower- and middle-class kids like me do about it?
This is definitely the vicious cycle that many young people are caught in: you need experience to get experience, and the only way in is to offer up your labor for free. If paid internships are too hard to get it in your particular field, you can still distinguish yourself in other ways, through regular paid work, talking to and networking with relevant people, learning particular skills, job shadowing, research, registered apprenticeship (depending on the field), and straight-up hustle. I think employers will still take note of talented, ambitious people even if they haven't done internships.
If there's a crackdown on unpaid internships, will that hurt college students seeking real-life experience?
I very seriously doubt that there will be a real crackdown on unpaid internships for several reasons. The Wage & Hour Division at Labor has limited funds and it focuses its attention on cases involving large numbers of employees who are being denied their rights. It also operates generally based on complaints, of which (for obvious reasons) there are very few from unpaid interns. If there were a real crackdown and it applied to internships directly connected to official courses, the back lash would be tremendous, and so I doubt that it would stick. If it did, that would hurt many students and the schools that sponsor their programs.
I can verify that interns do get their foot in the door. I work for a government agency and almost half our interns eventually were hired by our agency or one similar to us. Are there any studies showing which professions have the best probabilities of interns getting hired full time afterwards? That might help guide some towards internships.
Larger corporations with human resources departments and paid internship programs are more likely, from what I've found, to be focusing on "converting" their interns to full-time employment. Look for companies that talk explicitly about internships as a recruiting tool and boast of 50, 60, even 70% hiring rates from their intern class, which is often true in finance, consulting, and high-tech fields. But far too many organizations go years without hiring an intern of theirs, and indeed use interns to keep from having to hire people!
Let's face it: Some interns are harder, better workers than others. Every summer I hear complaints from DCists about interns in their offices who complain about their assignments, skip out early and -- gasp -- wear flip-flops to work. How do those stereotypes play into the paid-unpaid debate?
Hard to answer that question in a generally applicable way. Some employers treat interns very well because they are not being paid and some treat their paid ones badly because they are paying them and think they ar entitled to ask them to do anything they want. If an office has a dress code, being paid or not should be irrelevant. And of course, some workers are better than others, but since the decision to pay an intern is made BEFORE they start work, that cannot be a reason for paying some and not others, or paying none at all.
Okay, let's say I want to report illegal activity of not being paid... how do I go about reporting that?
First take a look at the six-point test and evaluate your internship versus that and collect any evidence you can to support your case. Speak to other interns in the workplace, if possible, and see if you have the same issues and can file your complaint jointly. Then contact the department of labor in the state where you're working: most have a website, a phone number, or an office you can drop by. This is usually a better idea than going straight to the federal level. If you want to speak to a lawyer, find an employment lawyer in your area: one way is to go the website of NELA (the National Employment Lawyers' Association) and do a search.
I've recently learned that my alma mater is now experimenting with all-inclusive internships where they batch students together to lower costs while still offering valuable work experience with local companies. The school support students with a stipend, housing, and real alumni mentorship. This sounds nice but is this overstepping what a school is responsible for? Shouldn't students just get internships on their own?
What school is this!? Sounds like a great deal...
Yes, it used to be that students pretty much got their internships on their own (or, ahem, through family connections). But, like we have said before, lots of students want internships and there often not enough spots to go around -- so students (and their parents) will go to extreme lengths to secure a spot.
Many colleges offer semester-long programs in D.C. or New York City in which students are guaranteed an internship of some sort, plus housing and activities. There are also non-profit and for-profit companies that offer the same service.
During college I participated in a very well structured internship program that also paid its interns. I wasn't able to receive credit for it, since to do so it would have had to be unpaid. And if I had received credit, I would also have to pay for them, even though the university wasn't particularly involved. How can universities' ethically sustain these kind of arrangements that seem to function mostly as "cash cows"?
At GW law school, we allow students to take a limited number of credits at non-profit or government agencies, for which they are payng tuition. This practice is approved by our accrediting agency, the American Bar Association. They are so required to take a course related to their placement and to do a certain amount of writing as well. We mainatin close relations with the places where students are working and their supervisors know that they are there to be trained, ratehr like a medical student in her third and fourth year pays tuition and is trained while helping to treat patients. In their placements, they learn real world skills, learn about different types of legal work and make very useful connections that will help them get a job after graduation -- maybe even with that employer. About 500 students year at GW do outplacement (by comparison Georgetown has a program about one-tenth that size) and no one is forced to do it, if they think it is unfair or for any other reason.
Jenna -- I have a question. In an unpaid internship situation -- essentially a volunteer arrangement -- is it more or less acceptable to get involved with a boss. In a paying job obviously you can't get involved with the person who is paying you. But with an unpaid position, I can quit any time I want -- I'm there as much at my own volition as theirs. Nobody would think twice about getting involved with the site coordinator on a Habitat for Humanity build, where you're a volunteer. But does the word "intern" change this? Also, my 'boss" at my internship this summer is someone who graduated college three years ahead of me and I've had a crush on him for a while... what do you think?? You seem like someone who would give some straight advice here and not the standard (and over-simplified) "don't get involved with coworkers ever" because that's unrealistic and nobody follows it anyways. Thanks!!
Hmmmmm.... I mean, if it's true love....
Here's the deal: It doesn't matter if you are an employee, an intern or a volunteer, anytime someone in a position of power gets physically involved with a subordinate of any sort, lines have been crossed. It's irresponsible and unprofessional for the "boss" and sets up an unequal power dynamic you don't want in any sort of relationship.
This conundrum is similar to the challenges facing teaching assistants, who are often about the same age as the students they teach. Sometimes they are even younger. But, as I once heard a Johns Hopkins administrator say at a TA training event: "If you are teaching a fall class, wait until Christmas to act upon your impulses... It can wait until Christmas if it's true love."
So, sorry to say, but it's really not in anyone's interest for you to make a move before the internship is completely over. Plus, you don't want to be that intern, right?
How do you advise people who could 1) do an unpaid internship which might, I guess, look good on a resume or 2) do a paid job that provides some much needed cash but isn't necessarily a great resume item. For me this is waiting tables vs. an unpaid internship at an insurance company which, as a finance job, is sort of generally the industry I'm interested in for after college. I sort of think the people I'd like to work for are going to respect a real job more than an unpaid internship. But will I have to disclose it was an unpaid internship? In which case it might look like just a relevant job vs. an irrelevant job.
There is no answer that is right for everyone. You have precisely hit the tradeoffs and even these facts don;t help very much because you also need to factor in the quality of the experiences, which are hard to measure in advance. One helpful suggestion is to get the names of prior interns and ask them for the real scoop - what did you do, what were your hours, what did you learn, would you ever go back there for a paid job. It's not perfect, but it can be a real help.
As a hosts to interns, I honor the time and expense of the unpaid intern with a focus on teaching and exposure to real world issues and not demanding production and productivity. Teaching and exposure will eventually transition to production and useful results. But that is when the unpaid experience should end. Question: Shouldn't colleges encourage interns to provide feedback on the learning/working balance and disbar hosts that demand revenue-producing work product, just as those who fail to actively teach?
If only there were most intern hosts like yourself taking the long view! There are some feedback mechanisms that colleges use, like internship diaries, but they seem to be insufficient, and the blacklisting of employers by schools is very rare indeed, almost always for very egregious violations. I agree that there needs to be better communication, even things like rankings for intern hosts/employers, so that students can make more informed decisions and be aware of what they're getting into. And so that employers will have an incentive to improve what they're doing.
I just found out I'm two months pregnant which means over the course of my internship this summer I will be four to seven months pregnant. I don't think that will interfere with my ability to carry out the program. Am I under any obligation at any point to inform my summer employer about my, ahem, situation?
I'm not sure about your obligation to notify them, but if you're a paid intern you have the same rights as any other employee, and they shouldn't be able to do something like dismiss you on the basis of your being pregnant. If you're unpaid, and this is the crux of so much that's wrong with unpaid internships, you're not protected by the law. Other thoughts?
I don't think so, unless you plan on leaving your internship before it's scheduled to end. Sadly, even mothers and mothers-to-be with full workplace rights face discrimination. I suggest you talk out the situation with someone you trust at your university so you are fully prepared to handle any situations.
I run a fairly small outfit in Washington and for several years we used unpaid internships. After a summer in which we had a bad crop of 5 unpaid interns we decided to go with 2 modestly-paid interns instead.
Your mileage may vary, but for $10,000 + a bit more paperwork we got two hard-working, motivated interns who contributed enormously to our organization. We slapped ourselves in the head for not doing this earlier -- we're a small organization but we got so much out of our $10,000 investment that it was well worth it.
More companies need to realize that not paying the interns isn't even worth it. This summer -- we're going back to 5 interns, all of them paid. This might not work in every industry, but the kids are getting great experience, a fair shake, and we're getting the most mileage for $25k that we get on any HR expense. I encourage other companies to wake up and follow suit!
Well-said! There's a very strong business case for paying interns, from having a wider, better applicant pool to fewer retention problems and greater motivation. In the scheme of things, paying interns is still a relatively cost-effective way to get work done and bring in fresh talent.
So what are the alternatives? Should we go back to some kind of apprenticeship system (which should in no way be romanticized), or something similar?
Itis hard to know how an apprentiiceship program would solve any of these problems, unless it were fully funded, which would eliminate the unequal impact on students without independent means to support their internships. Pay vs lack of pay is one problem, but the quality of the experience is another. Universities need to keep track of places that do not treat their interns properly and/or not give them meaningful work -- and make that information available to students considering working at those offices. And where academic credit is being given (in exchange for tuition dollars), the school needs to be sure that theprogram meets academic standards and involves learning as well as working for the employer.
What's the best way for students to find out from other students what the good internships are and which ones are not worth it?
For larger employers, you can try review websites like Glass Door, Intern Share, and so on, or try posting to a college message board or relevant website, but unfortunately there's no Yelp for interns yet. Career services offices, if you're a college student, might be able to help too. Otherwise it might just come down to word of mouth and poking around.
Schools maintain some of this information, but if you to the front door and have an interview or a job offer on paper, ask for the names and emails of some recent interns: if they won't give that information to you, be very careful -- they may be hiding something. And when you talk to prior interns, don't ask them what they "worked on" but what they actually did and how they spent most of their time.
What about unions? I've heard that some union workplaces disallow interns from doing any real work as to not replace a union employee. Do those places still even have interns? What's the value of having an internship where there is a limitation?
I don't think there's much crossover between union workplaces and internship programs overall, but interns do need to be conscious of possible tension if they're in a situation where they might be seen as replacing full-time staff. I've definitely heard from interns who felt mistrusted and mistreated by fellow staff who were suspicious of them on that basis. On the other hand, I've heard of some unions that try to protect or look out for interns (even though they aren't members, of course), since everyone has an interest in a fair workplace.
Most unions are very supportive of the Fair labor Standards Act and thus would not likely hire interns and not pay them, especially if they are seen as replacing paid workers. Short term work or an internship directly connected to a course might be seen differently, but for your typical summer job, unions would likely pay you or not hire you.
I was an independent student and had an unpaid summer internship in Philadelphia in 2004. My internship had a flexible schedule, since my boss knew I would need to pay my rent, and I worked at Staples perhaps 30 hours a week.
Maybe "flexibility" is the key to juggling an unpaid internship with a job that can pay the bills. If an employer isn't paying an intern, they have to realize that intern will likely be putting in hours somewhere else, too.