When students consider applying for schools, loved ones or educators can counsel them to show more than academics, athletics, and on campus clubs on their college applications. One of the primary ways is to do an unpaid internship in a field of their interest. Internships can be a valuable education experience for the students. In effect, an internship should benefit the student rather than the organization offering the internship. Yet as an employment attorney, I have often seen unpaid internships touted by small businesses that claim great experience, but in effect, are just a way for an employer to not pay wages. I often counsel these businesses that unless they adhere to the strict guidelines to provide meaningful internships for students, they should pay these interns minimum wage.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor and the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement, there are certain standards that employers must follow when taking on unpaid interns. These requirements are intended to ensure that the intern is really receiving a valuable learning experience in exchange for free labor. Unless all of the following criteria are met, the intern is legally an employee, who must be paid the minimum wage, earn overtime, and receive all of the other protections guaranteed by state and federal employment laws.
Under California law, these six factors must be met for an internship:
1. Interns cannot displace regular employees.
2. Interns are not guaranteed a job at the end of the internship.
3. The employer and the intern(s) understand that the interns are not entitled to wages during the internship period.
4. Interns must receive training from the company, even if it somewhat impedes on the work of the organization.
5. Interns must get hands-on experience with equipment and processes used in the industry.
6. Interns’ training must primarily benefit them, not the company.
Not sure if an internship is valid? Ask for referrals and a breakdown for what the internship includes. Experienced internship programs are flexible, often have a coordinator assigned to handle any questions, and can explain clearly what their goals are. Again, it comes back to what is the benefit the student receives. Speaking to ex-interns is one of the best ways to know what to expect.
It also comes down to the very real idea that if it is too good to be true, it probably is. As a student, it can be hard to ask questions or feel like you have to stand up for yourself, but time and time again, I tell students that if you feel something is not right, it is best to speak to your high school counselor or the coordinator in charge. An internship is a great indicator to colleges and institutions that you are serious about your path. But it should never come at the expense of feeling like you provided free labor and learned nothing.
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