Laws for unpaid internships are convoluted, outdated

As students, we’ve been told time and time again that sometime during our four (or four-plus) years at Carnegie Mellon, we should have an internship that relates to our field of study. We often take what we can get for this internship, and we don’t necessarily have the option of being picky about where it’s located or how much it will pay, if it even pays at all.

However, as a recent article in The New York Times pointed out, many of those unpaid internships that students are vying for may actually be illegal. The article states that the U.S. Department of Labor will begin to more strictly enforce the criteria that allow an unpaid internship to be legal. According to a Guidance Letter issued by the Labor Department on Jan. 29, there are six official factors that determine whether an intern for a for-profit institution may be unpaid: The training is similar to what would be given at a vocational school or academic institution, the training is intended to benefit the intern, the interns do not take the place of paid employees, the employer does not immediately gain an advantage from the intern, the interns are not guaranteed a job at the end of their training period, and both the employer and interns understand that the trainees will not be paid.

The above criteria offer fairly stringent and rather unrealistic guidelines governing the line between paid and unpaid internships. It is difficult to come up with a scenario where the employer doesn’t benefit at all from having an intern work for them. We understand that the rules are in place to protect those who cannot afford to take an unpaid position, but in many cases these unpaid internships actually act as “foot-in-the-door” opportunities that help to establish and jump-start an intern’s career in a given field.

Although the guidelines governing unpaid internships are intended to protect potential employees, they could actually keep interns who are qualified and willing to work for free from getting a job in a field that simply is not financially capable of paying each and every one of its employees, such as journalism or theater. The criteria should be revamped to more realistically reflect today’s job market. They should be clarified to make it easy for students and employers to know if an unpaid internship is legal, and this should be done in a way that benefits both interns and their employers.