Can I legally hire unpaid interns?

Hire sign

“An internship is a way for graduates and students to gain experience. This places an obligation on you, the employer, to educate and train them. An unpaid internship can last no longer than four months, with the intern moving round the company, experiencing a wide range of differing positions with no onus on them to produce work for your company. An internship, to be unpaid and legal, needs primarily to be a learning and training experience for the intern. You should not expect the intern to produce work that is going to be of benefit to you.”

Quoted from: Can I legally hire unpaid interns? — useful if offering internships (to stay on the right side of the law), and if seeking a placement (to ensure your chosen internship is the best possible match).

That’s how unpaid internships should work. It’s why I was more than happy with mine.

If you are searching for a design internship, this AIGA listing might help (US-based opportunities).

Somewhat related is this nice read from 2009. It’s Andy Chen’s blog entry about his summer internship with Paula Scher’s team at Pentagram. I wonder what he’s up to now.

Monster link via Paul @Zerofee. Image via Thinkstock.

11 responses

  1. Your post on this topic is incredibly timely, actually.

    This topic has come up for discussion in a major way in the US (Los Angeles, at the very least) because a former intern for Fox Searchlight, producer of Black Swan, is suing them for making the interns do routine work that ordinarily would have been a paid job. When you listen to the way the media initially presents the story, it sounds like an entitled millenial trying to get attention. It’s not. Which makes the story more interesting. Take a listen (

    I thought the intern presented his points very well. There was a foll0w-up speaker, author of a book titled ‘Intern Nation’ who also spoke well regarding the current U.S. labor laws concerning internships.

    Let’s see if this gains any traction.

  2. I really wish I had known this before taking an unpaid internship in my senior year of college. The company that I was with had more unpaid interns than actual employees. Worked for free with a 45 minute commute, I really didn’t learn much, and I didn’t get anything for my portfolio.

    The only things keeping me “okay” with the experience is that it only lasted 3 months, I got college credit, and an entry on my resume.

  3. Hello,

    I ‘m curious to know the “rules” about featuring work from an internship in a porfolio.

    Intern involved in a highly collaborative environment working with team of three persons (Designer, Art Director, Developer). The work is passed around frequently between (Intern, Designer) while (Intern, Designer, Art Director) collaborate on creative decisions.

    Any insight is much appreciated. Thanks you!

  4. David,

    Since you’re in Europe, what’s your stance/observation with apprenticeships? The topic comes up once in awhile over here in the USA, and it does seem more useful for younger folks serious about a career and not wasting their time (like @staying anonymous above)

    It’ll probably never be a serious option here in the states as long as there are people willing to “work” (not necessarily learn) for free or next to nothing, but since the trades have a long history in Europe (my dad was a Master Roofer from Germany) I was curious if was different over there.

  5. An interesting post David – and one I think that will have arguments on both sides.

    I guess the reason for unpaid interns is so they can look around, test the water, see if they fit in and see how they preform (a kind of free trial); but there is the danger that they will be exploited.

    Interesting to hear you did one – I guess you proved your salt in less than 4 months though?

  6. Interesting case, Arti. I listened to the mp3 and agree with much of what Eric said. If an unpaid intern isn’t being treated as someone who’s there to learn, there to be taught, with no onus to produce work for the company, it’s wrong.

    Anonymous, sorry to learn your internship worked-out that way. I didn’t know exactly what I was entitled to before my own unpaid experience, so I’m lucky in that respect.

    Shawn, I’ve never seen any rules, and I guess they’ll differ from company to company. I suggest you ask the opinion of those you were interning for.

    Eric, I don’t have much knowledge of apprenticeships. From what I do know, they’re a mixture of learning and payment, so you could say the apprentice gets the best parts of both paid and unpaid internships. The apprentice is being paid to learn on the job, rather than someone learning skills in college then entering the workplace (although I guess some formal education would help win the apprenticeship).

    Dave, at the same time there’s a danger we’ll be exploited in a full-time position. The danger is always there. It’s a matter of knowing what we’re entitled to (a bit of the reason for this post).

    My own unpaid internship lasted three months. It was at the non-profit Graphic Arts Technical Foundation just outside Pittsburgh. My time was spent moving from department to department, learning from many of the 70 or so staff in the building. I was also able to take part in my choice of three week-long in-house training programs. People from the printing industry would travel from across the US to take the courses, often at a cost of around $1,000 (I think that’s how much they cost — it was a while back).

  7. Thanks for bringing up this topic David.

    You hit the nail on the head. A lot of companies seem to be forgetting this. A major red flag for me is when companies call out for interns because they are “super busy”—but isn’t that exactly the worst time to hire an intern? Being this busy, you won’t have time to show them the ropes.

    If you are so super busy, hire someone of even on a temp basis, pay them fairly and don’t misuse the term internship to justify getting cheap/free labour.

  8. Thanks for bringing up this topic David. I do agree that not all internships should be paid. I find that colleges don’t teach design students about time management and print production. These are things colleges should be teaching at a senior year level course to all design students. This stuff only takes about a week to learn the basics.

    I didn’t know that an unpaid internship could only last 4 months. I do think its important for the employer to clarify to the intern that they probably wont’ be creating any design work for them.
    Maybe unpaid internships should be called “apprenticeships”.

    Listen this interview if you are interested:

    By the way I have a copy of your logo book and I love it too.
    Thanks, Maria

  9. I’d be interested to get people’s opinions on volunteers and what the differences are between volunteers and interns. I freelance for a non-profit organisation that also gets design volunteers to work on their smaller jobs.

    The only difference I can see is that a volunteer is donating their time and skills, and an intern is doing it to gain experience. However I find a lot of people volunteer for the same reasons as doing an internship. Seems a bit of a grey area.

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