How to Tell If an Unpaid Internship is Legal

Last Updated Sep 20, 2010 10:30 AM EDT

You are considering taking an unpaid positions but have heard the government is concerned that many unpaid internships are illegal and many big companies shy away from offering unpaid internships. How can you tell if the program you're considering is legit? Entry-level careers expert Heather Huhman takes to her blog to offer answers, and concludes that pay is actually a lousy indicator or whether an internship is worthwhile (and legal). So what should you look for before signing on to work without pay? Huhman offers five tip offs of a quality internship program:
  • Mentorship: If you are the "public relations intern," for example, you'd better be supervised by someone who actually knows about public relations. In addition, this person should devote the time to being your sounding board -- and be genuinely interested in your future enough to answer all of your questions, or put you in touch with someone who can.
  • Learning: You should be learning something new almost every day â€" and completing real projects. I always recommend interns keep an informal journal of their experiences â€" mostly so you don't forget what you've accomplished to add to your résumé later. Set up a meeting with your supervisor once or twice a month to go over your journal to make sure you're both still on the same page. Another way to ensure learning throughout your internship is to set goals at the very beginning against which you can measure at the end. You might want to ask about this during the interview process.
  • Networking: Especially if the organization can't offer you a job at the end of your internship, it's important to provide you with access to people who might. Along similar lines, make sure you have at least one sit-down with senior leaders within the organization sometime before your internship ends.
  • Work Samples: This depends on the field and the confidentiality rules of the company, but if you can swing it, make sure you walk away with not only accomplishment stories, but also physical proof of what you've done while interning for the organization.
  • Recognition: Throughout the internship, outstanding interns should be recognized for their hard work. If you came up with a great idea â€" particularly if the organization goes on to use the idea â€" other people in the company should know about it! And, at the end of the internship, ask your supervisor if s/he would be willing to serve as a reference. In fact, during the interview process, ask about the company's overall reference policy -- and your supervisor's personal policy.
Of course, after you have committed to an internship is not the time to go about investigating whether you'll receive these five non-monetary pay backs for all your hard work. "Every single point can be asked about during the interview process -- before you start your internship," says Huhman.

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(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Buster Benson, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.