Can Unpaid Internships Still Be Valuable?

A few years ago, unpaid internships were all the rage.  College recruiting offices were advising their students to gain experience, and the best way to do that was to work in the field that they wanted as a career, even if their work was unpaid.  It was a step up from volunteering, but not really a job. But is it valuable?


Unpaid internships fall within an exception to the employer-employee relationship. The Department of Labor (DOL) has long-established guidelines on unpaid internships, which must meet certain criteria:


  • Unpaid interns cannot displace regular employees
  • Unpaid interns are not guaranteed a job at the end of the internship
  • Unpaid interns are not entitled to wages during the internship
  • Unpaid interns must receive training similar to training that would be given in an educational environment
  • The internship should benefit the intern, not the organization
  • The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern


These guidelines were not always followed, even by major organizations. In 2011, two former unpaid interns brought a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc. and Fox Entertainment Group Inc., alleging that the organizations had violated labor laws by classifying them as unpaid interns instead of paid employees.  The Court found that the former interns were misclassified as unpaid interns and were instead employees.  While this case is on appeal, NBC Universal Inc., Warner Music Group Corp., and Gawker Media LLC have also been sued.


These lawsuits are changing the way employers are thinking about their internship programs.  Today, we are seeing the rise of paid internships.  As the employment market heats up, recruiters are finding it more difficult to find qualified applicants.  Interns allow businesses to get ahead of their talent recruitment by introducing applicants to the company during a set internship period.  Paying the interns attracts a better pool of applicants, who are less likely to be struggling to make ends meet between an unpaid internship and a part-time job to pay the bills.


But unpaid internships may not become history anytime soon.  An unpaid internship should meet all the DOL Guidelines.  While not guaranteed, it may even provide you with a job at the end of the internship. At a minimum, it should provide you with training, and a valuable educational experience in your field of interest. Remember, under DOL Guidelines, the internship should benefit you, not the employer.


It is important to evaluate your potential internship experience before you start. Even a paid internship may not be all that you want. With a paid internship you could find yourself filing and delivering coffee around the office (and making a small wage) instead of gaining valuable hands-on experience.  If the internship is in the field that you are exploring, find out who you will be working with and what you will be doing.


The best possible internship will be one where you are handling real-world issues and getting hands-on experience, while working with people you like and respect. But don’t count out an unpaid internship for this experience.  Until unpaid internships are history, in some cases your best internship could still be unpaid.

-Deborah Schneider, Co-Founder and CEO

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