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Updated on September 8, 2012

A Quick Guide for Navigating through the Pitfalls of Internships

A quick guide for both sides of the table of the internship arrangement. What can you expect as an intern? If you're a company looking for skilled interns what are some of the potential pitfalls? In this guide we will attempt to answer some of these questions as well as take a more in-depth look at the very real challenges posed by offering unpaid internships.

For the Intern To-Be

Everyone knows that internships are a great way to gain experience in a relevant field as well as allowing one to get a foot in the door at a company that you might not have the chance to do otherwise. Still, in today's day and age landing the internship of your dreams could be a lot more than you bargained for.

Although the landscape is changing, many internships in cities like New York are unpaid which means that unless you're independently wealthy or have rich parents it will be highly unlikely that you will be able to meet the requirements of an internship while juggling school and/or a part-time job. But, all is not lost. Because many companies (such as the plethora of tech and fashion companies one finds in NYC) want an intern capable of doing more than just taking coffe orders and copying reams of reports, many internships available today are paid (we'll get into the legalities of this in a minute). So, while the compensation may not be enough to retire on you stand to make as much as an entry-level barista while garnering excellent experience and connections.

For the Boys in the Suits

Let's face it: interns are a great deal for companies, especially unpaid ones. Still, in today's information-based economy companies are looking to interns to do a lot more than simply sling coffee and pick-up dry-cleaning. According to John Bonaccorso, founder of 15 Seconds to Fame, today's companies want "interns that we can roll into full-time positions" even if he laments that most often they are not coming out prepared to do so. Still, relying a pool of interns (prepared or not) to do a job for you that you could expect to pay someone for can land you in hot water with the Feds.

According to Jay Zweig, a labor lawyer at Bryan Cave in Phoenix., for an internship to be unpaid and still meet the legal requirements it must actually be of use to the intern and you cannot use them to Once that line has been crossed you better be sure there's a check forthcoming.

Nonetheless, many HR directors and business owners continue to view interns as a great source of cheap or free labor but, as Mr. Zweig points out, all it takes is for one disgruntled intern to contact the Department of Labor and your goose will be cooked. We've provided a quick summary of the Department of Labor's six criteria that determine if an internship can be legally classified as unpaid below.

So, an entrepreneur and an intern walk into a bar...

Now that we've seen just how much doo-doo one can get into when trying to play the free-labor game with interns we might want to stop and consider one crucial point: are the interns you're thinking of hiring even capable of doing what it is you want? For some reason, call it wishful thinking, everyone on the business side of he internship equation seems to forget that people who sign up to be interns (whether for pay or free) are doing so because THEY DO NOT HAVE EXPERIENCE in your field. In a recent Orlando-Sentinel article ( owners of tech companies are bemoaning the fact that the interns they are bringing on from local academic institutions aren't up to snuff. Well, what do they expect?

To be fair to those represented in the article, they are mostly talking about the poor quality of instruction that former interns who they later hire received but it really does go to show that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

The Final Analysis

As you can see, internships have the possibility of being a minefield for employers and potential interns but it seems as if their popularity is only on the rise. In the end all be all, it seems that interns have everything to gain from the arrangement despite those in the business world who cling to the archaic idea of getting people to work for free.

Six Things That Every Employer and Unpaid Intern Need to Know

Whether you are a prospective employer or looking for an unpaid internship opportunity its important that both parties understand the six criteria set out by the federal government which regulate what an unpaid intern can do. In short, the six criteria are as follows:

1. The internship is identical to training which would be given in an academic environment;

2. The internship is to the advantage of the intern;

3. The intern does not replace other workers, but labors under the guidance of current staff;

4. The company that provides the training derives no immediate benefits from the actions of the intern;

5. The intern is not entitled to a job at the close of the internship; and

6. The company and the intern realize that the intern is not eligible to earn income for time invested in the


Perhaps the most important of all of the above points is the number 4 because it is this criterion more than any other which throws a wrench in anyone sneaky enough to try to get intern slave-labor. In essence, interns can be a great source of cheap labor but, if they're doing anything even remotely useful forget about trying to get them for free.


Internship Links and Resources

A list of links to useful sites for learning more about internships.

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    • rvinyl lm profile image

      rvinyl lm 5 years ago

      @JonoAdams: Thanks! Yeah, internships are definitely the way to go for those looking for experience and real-life training.

    • JonoAdams profile image

      JonoAdams 5 years ago

      Nice lens! Internships are definitely a win-win proposition, especially in these times.