Unpaid Internships: a Way to Break in or a Breakdown in Our Work Force?

 Given the difficult economic times, college students and unpaid internships have become virtually synonymous. This presents a host of issues for students and other members of the nation’s workforce, 8.8% of whom are unemployed, according to the Department of Labor’s most recent statistics.

While some internships provide real academic experience, others may result in the displacement of people who need paying jobs and otherwise run afoul of the federal labor law. An April 3, 2011 Op-Ed piece by Ross Perlin in The New York Times, entitled “Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges”, addressed what he described as “A troubling bargain: school credit for work.” The article highlights concerns over the fact that millions of college students work as unpaid interns, including possible exploitation of the students and the motivation of  some colleges to give credit for internships because internships cost less than classes which require facilities and faculty.

The Department of Labor has established the following criteria to determine whether an unpaid internship in the for-profit sector will be permitted, or whether an “employment relationship” exists, requiring the employer to pay the intern the minimum wage and overtime:

 1. 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;

 2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

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

 4. 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;

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

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


Given the extremely difficult job market facing today’s college graduates, one wonders how they will enter the job force unless they have the kind of experience many can only obtain via unpaid internships. As we all know, it’s hard to get experience when you don’t have any.