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Beware of Illegal Internships

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An intern is a person – generally a student – who works in order to gain experience in a particular field. Internships are usually unpaid positions, but paid internships are common in the medical field. Internships are typically part-time and usually considered to be a great way for college students to gain familiarity with a potential career while they are still in school.

Internships are pretty common. In 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of graduating students had held internships, up from 9 percent in 1992. I was an education major, so I had to complete a full-time, semester-long student teaching internship during my final semester of college in order to graduate and gain state certification. This internship was required training in order for me to earn my degree, and some of my friends did various internships at different companies and organizations as well.

Strange, then, that I just read a New York Times titled Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say.

This April 2, 2010 article by Steven Greenhouse states: “If you’re an unpaid intern or the employer of an unpaid intern, don’t be surprised if you hear from the Labor Department soon. Led by M. Patricia Smith, its top law enforcement official, the department is cracking down on illegal unpaid internships, which is pretty much all of them.”

It’s understandable that an intern isn’t going to take over for the CEO, but it seems that today’s fledgling economy is causing more and more companies to use unpaid interns to perform “grunt work” such as cleaning bathrooms and packing and shipping boxes, even though they were promised real, on-the-job training.

It appears that the U.S Department of Labor has a list of criteria which must all be met in order for an internship to be unpaid.

U.S Department of Labor Unpaid Internship Criteria

1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.

2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee.

3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.

5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period.

6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

According to the New York Times article, The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.

Paying to Intern for Free?

A March 1, 2010 Chicago Tribune article discusses “internship placement companies” which assist college students in landing internships … for a hefty fee. Some students are paying $8,000 or more for companies such as the University of Dreams and the non-profit group The Washington Center to find them unpaid summer internships. These companies say they’re seeing an increase in applicants for such internships because “fewer jobs available because of the recession means there is more competition for summer work, which students see as critical to eventually landing full-time work.”

So in other words, students are willing to pay big bucks to hopefully land an internship that may (or may not) eventually lead to full time employment.

I never even heard of University of Dreams before reading the Chicago Tribune piece, so I’m not familiar with the company, but their website announces, “Our mission is to positively change culture on a mass level by identifying and recruiting Dreamers globally so that we can inspire, equip and challenge them through our products, services, charity and encouragement to discover and pursue their dreams.”

I don’t know about you, but paying $8000 for assistance in getting an unpaid internship is a little bit excessive in my book. If you would like to obtain job experience and training with an internship, you can obtain assistance from the career office at your school or by speaking with your academic advisor.


New York Times

Chicago Tribune


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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