Monday, March 1, 2010

Paying interns: it's not just a good idea, it's the law

Occasionally, an intern will email me to ask if they should offer to work for a firm for no pay as part of a trial period in order to get a paying job. My answer is always no; the AIA has explicit rules of ethics that dictate that interns must be paid, especially if they do work from which the firm benefits. Turns out that there are legal rules from the Department of Labor that say the same thing. According to the website and an article in the Denver Post edition of the Wall Street Journal Sunday (2/14/10), an unpaid intern:
  • must not do work from which the company will directly benefit
  • must not displace a regular employee
  • must learn beneficial skills that would be similar to what's taught in a vocational school
  • must understand that the unpaid internship does not guarantee a job
There are exceptions for those who get school credit for their work; for example, your pay is through school credit but is not monetary, though some firms pay college students a wage that's in addition to the school credits they're supposed to receive. Also, interns must receive overtime pay for any hours worked over 40. (This doesn't count if you're supposed to only work 20 hours a week and you work 25--overtime only happens if you work over 40 hours in a pay period.)

Even if it wasn't a matter of the DOL's say-so and the AIA's ethics, working for free doesn't jive with my own personal ethics. When you work for free, you tell a firm just how much you're worth and just how much you can be bought for. It's the same as asking for less than your equally-qualified colleagues when you all start at the same job. As time passes, you miss out on more and more pay as you work year after year. When you work for less--or for free--you start from behind and will stay behind for the rest of your career. And in a line of work that's notorious for being underpaid, I'm begging all of you not to sell yourselves short.


  1. Hello! I chanced upon your blog recently and now am an avid reader. While I agree with you in that working for free devalues the profession as a whole, I have been led to believe that unpaid short-term internships (less than 6 months) are quite common in Europe, and almost the norm for those starting out in their career. I'm a graduate of an Interior Design program, transitioning to a Masters in Architecture, and during my internship hunt for this summer I've happened upon several unpaid opportunities in Europe, but close to no paid opportunities in America! Granted, I'm not seeking to be an intern in terms of acquiring hours for architectural licensure, so I'm wondering if whether the international experience offers a viable counterweight to the price for which the intern has been 'bought.'

  2. Hi Amrita,
    I don't know much about how they work internships in Europe--they have different rules from us, not the least of which is that in some countries, once you graduate from architectural school, you're licensed. That being said, if you're looking for some architectural experience as well as travel experience, an unpaid internship with a foreign firm may be just the thing, as long as you can afford to be in Europe doing that (perhaps you've saved up the money to work there, or have a second job that pays, or are rooming with someone?). However, if you need for the hours to count for IDP towards your licensure, then you'll need to make sure that you work for an architect at that firm who is licensed to practice in the US. Regardless, working as an architect in another country is mind-expanding, paid or unpaid, and can benefit you in ways that don't directly affect your career but do affect your general life experience. Keep me posted on how you fare with getting an internship!

  3. What advice would you give someone who negotiated a substantially higher starting salary than the national averages, but due to economic reasons salaries were cut firm-wide? If it is obvious that salaries will return to normal in the somewhat near future (4-8 months) would you hold out at that firm to regain that substantial salary increase? Or would you jump ship and find somewhere else to set your sails, even if that meant making a bit more for the short term but not getting to where you deserve to be in a year or so?

  4. John Smith: the short answer is stay where you are.

    The longer answer is this: remember that we're in the worst economy in more than 30 years, so this means two things for you. One, there aren't a lot of firms out there hiring right now; and two, if there are any firms, chances are they can't pay you your pre-pay cut wage anyway.

    You stand to do better staying put, especially if you can get some kind of assurance that pay will be reinstated at the original figure after the storm has passed (which may take up to a year, bear in mind). Firm-jumping does not look good on an intern's resume, and remember that if you were to look elsewhere right now, a potential employer will ask you why you'd dare look for a job while you have one (and saying "well, they cut my and everyone else's pay and that ain't cool" will reflect poorly on you).

    Stay where you are. If your pay is reinstated at a lower rate than before, ask about it. Otherwise, spend the time learning all you can and providing value to your employer. Remember that a higher-than-average salary can also make you easy pickings for an early round of layoffs, so accepting the pay hit gracefully and then making yourself really useful can help you weather the economic storm.

  5. This is a great website! Very insightful and educational. I hope some of this information will help me get a job and/or be better prepared when I finally land one.

  6. Hi LULU :
    I'm a Female architecture graduate from Saudi Arabia im searching for an internship in europe and i really need help ..

  7. Any company or government body (they do it too)should be ashamed that they are using their future work force as slaves while they sometimes pull in 6 figure salaries. It is pathetic, these cheap SOB's should not be allowed to hire/fire/manage anyone. Someone ought to start prosecuting these people for violation of labor laws and min. wage laws.