Unpaid internships were designed for students to get valuable training outside of the classroom. Some professions require supervised internship hours toward graduation and licensure. Unfortunately, the internship seems to have evolved into a default position that job seekers take to avoid not having anything at all. This is a problem, and it is also in some cases illegal.
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The Six Rule Test
The United States Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has tight rules for who can work as an unpaid intern. Six rules must be met for a for-profit company to have an unpaid intern in service:
- The training and experience must be similar to that which would be received in an educational environment.
- The internship must be for the benefit of the intern.
- The intern should not replace employees, and should be closely supervised by paid workers.
- The company should not get benefits from having the intern. Rather, business may be impeded while the intern learns.
- There does not need to be a promise of a future job.
- The intern and the company must agree ahead of time that the internship is unpaid.
The New York Times interviewed a handful of young, well-educated people who are looking for jobs and settling for “internships.” This is a sign of the times; companies are happy to hire those with no professional experience to do menial tasks in return for “experience,” but there are no jobs on the horizon. Instead, these workers are serial interns going from one internship to the next as they apply for real jobs and never hear back. The internships themselves do not lead to real jobs.
One young man in the Los Angeles area gets $10 per hour for his internship. Therefore, he can toil as a lowly intern for little pay and no future job prospects while the laws regarding unpaid internships are not broken.
While it is absolutely fine to choose to switch careers any point in life, internships were designed for students. National Public Radio recently published a story about interns who are in their 40s, or older.
The older interns are no different than the 20-somethings they intern alongside; they all are trying to get real jobs someday. For the older interns, it seems to be about getting job experience for a different career. But the problems are the same. A true internship is a learning experience, and not a promise of a future job.
One internship in a specific field should be enough to give a job-seeker the experience necessary to qualify for a real job. And if that is what it does for the young and the old, then it is a good thing. The problem seems to be that interns of all ages have trouble making that leap from intern at one company to employee at another.
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