Back to previous page


@Work Advice: The difference between internships and free-labor scams

By ,

Reader: My daughter recently graduated from an acclaimed eastern college. She has sent out many résumés for internships with no response. I’ve noticed the requirements listed on many of these internships include previous work experience and technical training. These descriptions are identical to real job requirements, yet the internships rarely pay. It’s clear to me these places want free labor, and they’re very selective.

My fear is that she will give up. Would it be wrong to ask them politely why they never contacted her?

Karla: I’m sure you’d be polite, but I really think your daughter should handle this.

Oh, wait — you mean, would it be wrong for her to follow up with them? Not at all. In fact, she should probably make a habit of contacting companies several days after applying to confirm that her application was received, and then checking in with them a few weeks later to ask whether they’ve reached a decision. If the decision is “Not you,” she can politely ask for suggestions to improve her prospects.

Now that we’ve dispensed with job-search etiquette, let’s talk about whether these unpaid internships are worth your daughter’s time — or are, in fact, legal.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division has a list of criteria an internship program must meet to be exempt from minimum wage and overtime rules. In a nutshell, the program has to be designed for the benefit of the interns, not the employer. It must provide training similar to that found in an educational environment, and cannot use interns to displace regular employees. So, no exploiting desperate newbies for free labor at the expense of full-timers.

By those criteria, the “internships” you describe sound suspicious to me, too.

Some former interns have sued employers, including Fox Searchlight and Hearst Corp., for violating labor laws. According to employment attorney Sharon Snyder of Ober | Kaler, employers who lose such cases can be slapped with hefty damages. Personally, I’d rather turn down a dodgy gig in advance than join a class action afterward, hoping for a payout.

Of course, many students, grads and career-switchers are eager for the prestige and connections an internship promises — even if it means they spend their time making coffee and collating. And in some fields, internships remain the best way to get a foot in the door. The down side is that you can’t pay the rent with prestige; why do the same work for free that Starbucks will pay for?

But, assuming she’s not expecting you to foot her bills, it’s up to your daughter to decide whether she wants to intern for a place that seems to want to take advantage of her existing skills without offering her additional skills, or much of anything else, in return.

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com. You also can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook, www.facebook.com/KarlaLMillerAtWork.

© The Washington Post Company