Unpaid internships originated in the olden days when young people would apprentice with a skilled craftsman so they could learn their skills, like blacksmithing, construction, even how to paint (Think Michaelangelo). Today, they have become quite the norm.
As you know, it’s not as bad as it sounds. For some of us, having worked for a major company, adding skills or accomplishments on our resume is all the compensation we need. It’s also common for schools to offer course credit for the internship, which also counts for something.
Unfortunately, word got out that employers can get entry-level workers for such a bargain (read: exactly zero dollars). It also caught the attention of less-than-scrupulous “business owners”. It’s good to know unpaid interns have legal rights too.
Don’t get the wrong idea here. There is immense value in this setup when you find an honorable company to work for and increase your knowledge. Like most situations, a little due diligence goes a long way. By that, we’re saying that you should do your homework:
1. Google the business.
Check out what people say on social media sites.
2. Look for word-of-mouth referrals.
Talk to actual people that have worked there to see what it was like to work there. Find them on LinkedIn and social media.
3. Ensure that the company is actually a real business and not some scammer looking for a free gopher.
You did not come this far to fetch someone’s personal dry cleaning (unless that someone is Liam Hemsworth. Then, maybe.)
4. Study your own legal rights just a bit.
The nice people at the U.S. Department of Labor have your back, and you owe it to yourself to know what is and what is not permitted in an unpaid internship. This way, your argument will have some substance if you ever have to object to being treated unfairly.
Here is a summary of the criteria that have been set forth by the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division:
- Of course, your internship is going to include some operational aspects of the employer’s day-to-day business activities. The overall nature of your role, however, should be a bit more like that of an educational environment.
- The experience needs to offer an arguable benefit to you. We are not referring to the exercise you’ll be getting from running all those errands. Yes, your legs will look great, but you can’t put that on a resume. Examples of true career benefits may include learning a special skill, training to use a certain computer program, learning how to craft a presentation or other things that will help you land a job when this is all over.
- You’re not taking the place of any employees; nobody is losing their job because you are there. Instead, you should be working under the direct supervision of existing staff members.
- Not only does the employer not benefit financially from your presence, but you may even be slowing them down because they invest time to train you.
- There have been no promises of a full-time position at the conclusion of your internship. You may apply and compete for one, but that’s not necessarily a guaranteed part of this deal. Otherwise, what you’re doing is actually unpaid in-house training, which is not permitted, either.
- Both you and the employer agree that you won’t be getting paid. That fact has been laid out clearly for everyone, and you’ve signed your name on the dotted line, anyway.
In most cases, you will be able to tell right away whether or not your unpaid internship fits the bill; those nefarious characters don’t typically get away with their shady activities for long.
You don’t want to have to go back to the drawing board, though, if you discover that your internship is not exactly kosher. So, do the legwork up front. A little extra studying never hurt anyone, and it could save you from a major headache fighting for your legal rights as an intern down the road.
After all, all employers are not always Michaelangelo!