Unpaid vs. Paid Internships: Focus on Experience But Make Sure You Get Paid If You Deserve It

With a glut of talent searching for opportunities to differentiate their resumes from peers, some organizations take advantage of the situation by “hiring” unpaid interns to do work that used to be performed by entry-level employees.  This is wrong on many levels, and might even be illegal.

During my class last week, a student raised the issue of paid vs. unpaid internships.  She and others Tweeted my adamant response that interns who have graduated from college or are in graduate school should be paid.  Only nonprofit organizations and agencies that are providing college-sanctioned learning experiences for credit should be permitted have unpaid interns.  My rule of thumb:  If the work performed by the intern is billable or if he or she is taking on responsibilities that allow others to be more billable, then the intern should be paid.  The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act is more definitive in its assessment of paid vs. unpaid interns.  Prospective interns and their employers should become familiar with government regulations in the U.S. and abroad.

In order to qualify for unpaid interns or trainees, the U.S. Labor Department requires an organization to meet the following criteria:

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.

If the company fails to satisfy any one of these requirements, the worker is considered an employee and must be paid at least minimum wage.

Nonprofit organizations more easily tap unpaid interns, and experience gained from such jobs can be a valuable addition to your resume.  But don’t fill your resume with unpaid internships; it’s important to have both paid and volunteer experience.

Additional thoughts contained in earlier posts: Weighing Paid and Unpaid Internships and An Intern’s Perspective on Internships.

3 thoughts on “Unpaid vs. Paid Internships: Focus on Experience But Make Sure You Get Paid If You Deserve It

  1. The problem is…. there is no one to defend the rights of interns…and unfortunately there are too many qualified people sitting at home waiting for any opportunity to come along.

    I was an “unpaid employee” who didn’t get lieu days for working weekend, and had to stay until 5 on Fridays even though “paid employees” left at 3 for “summer hours”.

    riddle me that Batman.

  2. I have had two internships with nonprofits. I am dubbed a “volunteer intern”. I have loved my experience at both. The nonprofit field is what I am most interested in after graduating from the University of Oregon. What do you suggest to those who want to pursue this field? I doubt I can ever find a paid internship with a nonprofit. I’d also like to add I have never been forced to stay later hours, I do that of my own will.

    1. More and more nonprofits are offering paid internships. My niece works as an intern with a small nonprofit organization that pays her the same rate agencies are giving their interns. Nonprofits realize the value of workers on whom they can depend vs. the more unpredictable schedules of volunteers.

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