Remember how the federal government last year laid down some internship ground rules to prevent for-profit companies from squeezing too much free labor out of unpaid interns, forcing employers to either comply with six legal criteria or pay the interns like all us normal wage slaves? Seems that just confused a lot of college counselors and employers.
A new study says that about one in four career counselors doesn’t really know what constitutes a legal internship—a startling number. An internship that’s neither for credit nor paid is not legal, for instance. Yet almost one in five career counselors thinks it is. Even worse: About as many believe that internships need to be paid in order to comply with the law. Some even actively tell students not to take unpaid internships—not necessarily because they think they’re illegal, but also because they believe that supporting unpaid internships is improper (presumably because they further the elite's reproducing itself, among other issues).
Despite all the confusion, most career centers continue to post listings for unpaid, not-for-credit internships (illegal). It’s fortunate, then, that most employers offer academic credit for internships.
College counselors aren’t the only ones mixed up or worried by the rules. More than a few employers haven’t been publicizing their internships because they weren’t sure of the legality of their programs, according to the study.
The fact that so many employers and career counselors (and interns) don’t know if an internship is legal or not may suggest just how embedded the current view of what an internship is supposed to be is. The internship is your first step in your career, right? It’s a ticket to a decent first job. It’s part of the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It’s just what you do when you’re in school. These are the types of things you’re apt to hear from your career center, your parents, most articles you read on the internet. We hear these things, because they reflect what internships have become.
The six federal criteria require that an internship be about a training and learning experience; an internship shouldn’t just be the first rung on the career ladder. And so the criteria are strict. Very strict. The DOL’s acting wage and hour administrator Nancy J. Leppink told the Times: "If you're a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren't going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law."
Maybe the confusion comes not from trying to understand some inscrutable federal guidelines—they’re pretty straightforward—but in the attempt to displace the reality of what internships currently are and have become with what internships should be.
[Inside Higher Ed]
DOL Internship factsheet
DOL training and employment guidance letter