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To Be (Paid)? Or Not to Be?
December 26, 2019
Washington Intern Study Experience

Unpaid internships have been in the news a lot lately, and not necessarily for good things. On June 11th, a judge ruled Fox Searchlight violated minimum wage laws by not paying their interns. Emboldened by this ruling, plaintiffs filed new lawsuits on June 14th and June 21st against Conde Nast and Gawker Media respectively.

So, as a recent grad, what does all this mean for you?

Well, for starters, it could mean less unpaid internships, which is both good and bad. Good for obvious reasons – it’s a paycheck and more opportunities for those not in a position to work for free. Bad because according to American Public Media’s Marketplace, 79 percent of employers surveyed said that unpaid internships have a positive impact when they evaluate graduates for hire. So, less unpaid internships, means less internships in general. And since 30% of undergraduates in the US today have an unpaid internship, we think it’s important to look at ways the changing landscape may impact you, the recent grad; and more importantly, what you can do to make sure you get the right one for you.

Know The Law

The first thing you should do is know the six criteria of an unpaid internship. The Department of Labor spells them out:mentor and protege

  • 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.
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  • 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.
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  • The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Again, you’re not free labor. Matthew Zinman, founder of The Internship Institute, a nonprofit in Newtown, PA, said that “The core guiding principle is to maintain an emphasis on providing relevant hands-on experience, which is to everyone’s benefit. Keep non-learning tasks to a minimum.” Taking an unpaid internship is a two-way street.  We just want to make sure you’re not the only one driving down it.

Interview the Interviewer

Once you know the six criteria, study up on any internships you might be interested in. See if it sounds like something you could really learn from. And then don’t be afraid to ask questions during the interview. When an unpaid internship is substantive and meaningful – which doesn’t mean complex latte orders (although that can be pretty substantive too) – it can help you learn more about a career field, as well as build skills to get a paid internship or a full-time gig. For example, one student who interned in the investment banking industry said, “I was mainly looking for an opportunity to learn more about investment banking and see whether it would be a field I would want to pursue. The internship gave me a good look at what the industry was about and introduced me to the lifestyle and the duties of an entry level position in the field.” In other words, the internship was a benefit to both him and the employer. A very important legal distinction to remember.

intern at her deskIt’s ALIVE!

Despite the recent headlines, the unpaid internship is still alive and well, regardless of what the future may hold. Just ask the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). According to their survey, nearly half of students—48%– had done unpaid internships. Of those, more than a third—38%–worked for private, for-profit companies. Furthermore, both paid and unpaid internships are on the rise. Some 63% of graduating seniors from the class of 2013 reported having done an internship, the highest rate since NACE started tracking internships in 2007. Of unpaid interns, 41% worked for non-profit groups and 21% for government. It’s important to take note of the latter figure because the majority of internships in politics are unpaid. Something to definitely keep in mind in the DC area.

Times are changing. The unpaid internship may soon go the way of the dinosaur. Meaning the fossilized remains of the unpaid intern might one day be on display at the Smithsonian. But as of right now, they are actually growing in numbers. So as you are out there pounding the pavement and submitting your resume to different places, know the law, study the job, ask your questions, and make sure you give yourself the best shot to launch your career. Doing so will help you determine weather you want to be paid now, in the future or both.