Internships aren’t what they used to be


I just answered a post on LinkedIn where a young man was bemoaning the results of his unpaid internships.  The issue the internship didn’t meet his goals; it didn’t further his career.

That didn’t bother me, it was the “unpaid” aspect.


According to the US Department of Labor, there is no such thing as an unpaid internship.  The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), all internships must fall into one of two categories.

New York State has similar standards as an example.

Seven factors are relevant:

The extent

— to which the intern and the employer clearly understand there is no expectation of compensation. (Any promise of compensation suggests the intern is an employee.)
— the internship provides training similar to which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
— to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
— the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
— An internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
— the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
— to which the intern and the employer understand the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

 Educational Credit

 According to the FLSA, if need to be enrolled at an accredited institution.  That institution must have authorized internship programs.  Those programs must related to your degree curriculum. When the three requirements are present, then you are not an employee, you are an intern..

A caveat is the employer may at their discretion, recompense you for out of pocket (travel) expenses.


Essentially if you are in a volunteer program, you won’t be paid.  The rules make it simple to figure out whether you are entitled to payment of wages or not.  An example are Scoutmasters of Boy Scout Troops.  Scoutmasters are totally volunteer, but the Boy Scouts have professionals who work (employees) and help Scoutmasters.  They were hired to do a job as employees, not as volunteers.  A volunteer job can’t have a promise or hint of a paid job later and still be a volunteer job.

You want an internship in a different field….

So, you want to change fields are a company agrees to hire you as an “intern.” You aren’t in an educational program.  They must treat you as an employee.  This means that you must be paid at least the minimum wage and if you work over the appropriate number of  hours to qualify for benefits, they must be offered just like any other employee.

Word to the wise.

Don’t be blinded by what seems to be a great opportunity, if you are an employee, you are required to be paid.  If you are a volunteer, you are called that.  If you are in an internship, you are getting credit for the work you are doing and it’s going to fulfilling degree requirements.

A great paper on this topic was written by Jessica L Curaile in the Hastings Law Journal:

America's New Glass Ceiling: Unpaid Internships, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Urgent Need for Change , JESSICA L. CURIALE
- Hastings Law Journal 2010