Unpaid internships — growing rapidly in a bad economy — may violate minimum-wage laws, federal and state regulators tell the New York Times.
According to federal law, unpaid internships at for-profit employers should resemble vocational or academic training; the intern must not displace regular paid workers and the employer should “derive no immediate advantage” from the intern’s work. It’s awfully hard to design a job that provides no benefit to the employer and is educational for the worker.
In 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of graduating students had held internships, up from 9 percent in 1992. This means hundreds of thousands of students hold internships each year; some experts estimate that one-fourth to one-half are unpaid.
I’d bet that many internships that used to be paid no longer carry a salary.
Many students do get valuable work experience and contacts from unpaid jobs, even if they do relatively menial work. That’s why they take the jobs. I know my nephew, who’s majoring in computer science with a video-game design specialty, applied to unpaid internships. (So far, no success.) He’d love to work for free as opposed to not working at all.
Non-profits can accept volunteers without penalty. My daughter is an unpaid lawyer for the San Francisco Bar. (She’s on half pay from the law firm that offered her a job and then asked her to wait a year to start.) The pro bono program has been flooded with unemployed and underemployed lawyers eager to work for nothing so they can impress a future employer.
Update: College grads looking for work had better have a Plan B, reports the Wall Street Journal.