intern.jpgSome career experts (and I use this title lightly) tell people to work for free as a way to get their foot in the door. This is a stupid suggestion so I was heartened to read a story on FastCompany.com encouraging workers not to work for free.

“If you’re busy doing free work because it’s a good way to hide from the difficult job of getting paid for your work,” Seth Godin exhorts, “stop.”

Godin is a branding guru, and people tend to listen to what he advises. That a great thing because adult internships for for-profit corporations is a dumb way to climb the ladder of success, as Godin points out.

It also can be illegal, which the article fails to mention.

A growing number of jobless workers who are out of college are working for free in volunteer positions or so-called internships, as employers across the country take advantage of the huge pool of free skilled labor among the seven million unemployed Americans. This despite the face that volunteering, especially volunteering for private companies, can be illegal in some cases and unethical, at best; but desperate out-of-work employees are more than willing to oblige, some even offering to work for free as a way to beef up their resumes.

For many job seekers, interning for low or no pay is seen as a necessary evil in an economy where employers are reluctant to hire full time workers but still have work that needs to be done.

But there are laws in this country that forbid working for free, unless such work arrangements follow very strict guidelines. The reason these laws were written was simply to protect against worker exploitation.

So, are you working for free illegally, or are you pondering an adult internship that could be thwarting the law?

The Department of Labor Wage and Hour division has six criteria on when an unpaid internship is considered an internship and not in violation of labor laws:

1. The training is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students;
3. The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Now free internships for college students who get college credit is a different situation all together. Clearly, these are even better if you get some pocket change for you troubles, but what I’m focused on here are professional adults working for free, and not for charities but for employers that should know better.

“Great internships still exist — paid positions transparently advertised and filled, stepping stones to full-time jobs, opportunities genuinely focused on education and training,” wrote Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” in a New York Times opinion piece that ran earlier this month. “But the rash of illegal, exploitative situations has destroyed any notion that internships are inherently ‘win-win.’ The well-intentioned, structured, paid training experience of yesteryear is increasingly giving way to an unpaid labor racket that harms all of us.”

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