Why we don't have unpaid internships

Internships—whether paid or unpaid—have become a standard way for students to distinguish themselves in a competitive job market. Among nonprofit organizations especially, unpaid internships are so common that people are sometimes taken aback when they hear we don't have them.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has guidelines about what internships should provide (including a six-point test), but it is unclear whether these apply to nonprofits, which get an exception for volunteers. To oversee an internship as defined by the DOL guidelines takes a lot of staff time, and nonprofits are notorious at operating beyond capacity. Most internships aren’t governed by labor laws (with the exception of those in a handful of states and cities) leavingunpaid interns with no protection against discrimination.

To have an unpaid internship in a major city (like New York or San Francisco, where Engine is located) with a high cost of living assumes that the intern has resources from elsewhere to support the unpaid full-time work. This can lead to a class disparity in the candidates who apply for internships. This disparity can then be perpetuated in the workforce, as internships offer a distinct career advantage.

We believe internships are important for people trying to build experience in new fields. Internships give people an opportunity to prove themselves, build a portfolio of work, and learn about business culture. They also give potential employers an opportunity to see how an intern might fit into their business. “Fit” is a word that is used so often as a defining factor in deciding who to hire, so this advantage is huge. In specialized fields, internships also signal that a job applicant has experience in a niche set of issues, which can be a real boon to the HR person who is sifting through hundreds of resumes and looking for a way to sort the candidates.

Despite these benefits, we cannot endorse unpaid labor, and encourage students and those embarking on new fields of work to seek out employment opportunities at organizations that can support their work.

In the meantime, we have created a volunteer program that has clear benefits for students and professionals without full-time hours or relocation expenses. 

Engine is a lean organization with a small staff and a big mission. We don’t think it’s fair to offer an internship program unless we have the capacity to give an intern a meaningful experience and a paycheck.