Design Bad Word: Unpaid Internship

This week’s design bad word is really just a bad word for anyone period: Unpaid internships. I decided to ask  Jeremy Widen, a film and video professional with over 3 years of experience and 7 internships under his belt about what he thinks of this controversial topic. 

Jeremy, What do you think of unpaid internships?

I see the pros of interning for free, but I also see the downside and the downsides greatly outweigh the pluses. Most people who are looking for unpaid internships are basically just looking for slave labor and an internship is meant to be an educational experience, not just menial tasks and 99% of the time when someone is in an internship all they are doing is getting coffee and not doing anything. So if that is all they are doing, they should be getting paid. […] That being said, internships are great. I’ve had a lot of them and some were great and some weren’t but internships are meant to teach people their craft. Because a lot of entry-level jobs now are requiring 2-3 years of experience. Well how are you going to get it? You’re going to get it through internships.

Are unpaid internships legal?

I know that in a lot of states, it’s illegal to have an unpaid internship. You have to be given at least a travel stipend in order for that to be legal. Even that’s not enough. 

How do you feel about Internships for school credit? 

[In California] It’s still not a legal way to get around paying someone. You’re still legally required to offer at least a travel stipend. It’s different in every state. I like the idea of interning for credit, because if you’re interning while in school and you’re interning for 20 hours a week, it makes sense while in class to not have to be there for an additional 4-6 hours a week on top of having homework. 

I don’t think people are doing that the right way. Schools are charging you full credit for that class even though they have nothing to do with the internship. I know people at AI are paying up to $700 per credit now and the class we had to take for credit was three credits, so essentially they are paying almost $2000 to take an internship. 

I’d be ok with paying for an internship class if the class did more than just provide the credits to graduate and actually taught me something. Otherwise I think they should be lower cost.

What’s the magic number of months to work at an internship?

Three months. Right around there is the perfect length for an internship because it gives enough time that you can put it on your resume and actually have it as credit towards the 2 years of experience that you need for an entry-level job and it’s not so long that it’s becoming redundant. 

When would you suggest breaching the subject of full-time?

I think it depends on the situation. Breaching the subject of employment can always be tricky and it comes down to a person’s individual situation. For me, I was in school, and producing my senior thesis. I just didn’t have the time. 

Here are the six criteria (source) where unpaid internships are technically legal:

• 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. (Ideal situations involve a program that is overseen by a college or university and where educational credit is provided.)

• The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern. (Programs that provide the trainee with skills that can be used in multiple employment settings, as opposed to skills specific to one employer’s operation, will be more likely to be viewed as training.)

• The intern does not displace regular employees but, instead, works under close supervision of existing staff. (If the employer is providing job shadowing opportunities that allow an intern to learn certain skills but the intern performs no or minimal work, the activity is more likely to be acceptable as unpaid.)

• The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded. (In other words, the business should not be dependent upon the work of the intern.)

• The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship. (Typically, an internship is for a fixed duration. It should not be used as a “trial period”.)

• The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

The overall cons:

If it’s unpaid and actual work – it’s illegal. The employer shouldn’t be getting free labor out of you. The intention of internships is education, not free labor. If you’re stuck in this situation, where they are working you like any other employee, make sure you’re learning something.

If it’s unpaid and menial work – double not worth it! You’re not learning AND you aren’t getting paid for it. Get out of there!

If it’s internship for school credit – In this instance, you may end up having to actually PAY the school to have this internship. Credits aren’t ever free. Make sure you check with your program. For the working class this opportunity may not even be a possibility. Most students must work during school in order to make rent, or pay for tuition out-of-pocket.

They’re gonna keep getting away with it – Unfortunately, very few employers (firms and small businesses etc.) are actually being cracked down on about the legality of their unpaid internships, because no one is stepping forward and some college students believe any experience is worth the price.

The Pros:

Experience is Experience – If you’re financially capable of taking an unpaid internship, I say swallow your pride and do it. You will still learn something, even if it’s “god I know I don’t want to work in an environment like this”. Hopefully it will be more than that, but no internship will be completely un-educational.

It’s a possible foot in the door – While there, pass around your business card (or some sort of self promo and if you don’t have one, make one) so that you begin to network and gain contacts for when you graduate and actually need a job. If you truly impress during your internship, you may be offered a position after your term is done, or after you graduate.

It is what you make it – ASK QUESTIONS! ASK LOT’S AND LOT’S OF QUESTIONS! You get a chance to be smack dab in the middle of a professional work environment. Do your best to pester everyone for tips on better work flow, best business practices, or a new software trick you didn’t know before. If they shirk you off, calmly explain that internships are for your benefit to learn and be trained and if they are unwilling to train you, then they are breaking labor laws.

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*** Disclaimer: before marching up to your internship employer, do realize that I am not a lawyer, have not studied art law and can not legally give you council on what’s legal and what’s not. Every state has it’s own policy, be sure to read your state’s labor laws before making accusations.*** 

  • RT @jdwiden: @LorettaMay interviewed me about #UnpaidInternships for her blog. Read all about it here:

    25 October, 2012 at 12:09 pm
  • What’s wrong with Unpaid Internships? A lot actually >>

    25 October, 2012 at 4:39 pm
  • RT @LorettaMay: What’s wrong with Unpaid Internships? A lot actually >>

    25 October, 2012 at 11:30 pm
  • Mom

    Hi, you need to always add the disclaimer that you are not an attorney to the end of your posts that say (or deal with) something being legal or illegal. xox

    26 October, 2012 at 11:41 am