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Twentysomethings Entering Tight Job Market Lean Toward Unpaid Internships, but Employers Walk a Tightrope in Labor Law

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (06/01/12) Anna Orso

A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicates that internship hires will rise 8.5% from last year, when just under 50% of internships were unpaid. Although more college graduates and current students are willing to accept unpaid internships to obtain experience at a time when the unemployment rate for the 20-24 age segment is about 13%, experts note that some unpaid internships could violate federal law.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships must be similar to training and benefit interns; cannot displace regular positions, be immediately advantageous to employers, or guarantee job offers; and must involve a mutual assumption by the employer and the intern that the position is unpaid. Much of the dispute over unpaid internships centers on whether employers receive “immediate advantages,” which is interpreted differently by government officials, employers, and attorneys. To ensure compliance, some experts say employers should pay interns the minimum wage, protecting themselves in the event that the work is seen as advantageous to the employer.