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Are students being exploited by unpaid internships?

Internships are a way for many Missouri college students gain the industry experience they need to land a job after graduation. The problem, however, is that many internships are unpaid, forcing college students who want the opportunity to learn hands-on skills from professionals in their field to work for free. Recent high-profile lawsuits against employers have shed light on a practice that many deem unfair.

The Department of Labor's guidelines for unpaid internship requires that interns receive training similar to what they would receive in a classroom and that they do not do the job that a paid employee of the company would otherwise do; further, the intern should benefit more from the experience than the employer. Problems arise when unpaid interns do jobs that do not benefit them educationally and that would be done by paid employees if the interns were not there.

In some industries, such as teaching and social work, unpaid interns are the norm. Students in these industries have much to gain in internships as permanent positions in these fields typically require some kind of experience. In an ideal situation, the unpaid intern leaves the position with a wealth of experience. Unfortunately, many unpaid interns do not have the same experience. Some may spend their days sorting mail or doing other menial tasks that add nothing to their education while saving the employer the cost of hiring a full or part-time employee.

The law requires that employees are paid for their work. While unpaid internships can offer many benefits when they are structured as educational experiences, college students should be paid when they are doing the working as an employee. Failure to pay employees can result in a minimum wage violation. An attorney with experience in employment law may fight for the rights of an insufficiently compensated employee and intern and recover fair wages.

Source:, "Are Unpaid Internships Mere Exploitation?", Eric Reed, July 03, 2013

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