Are Unpaid Internships Discriminatory?

Presented by: Kenan Fishburne

Are Unpaid Internships Discriminatory? Background: The debate about unpaid vs. paid internships has changed since the resolution of the economic downturn. Interior Design Internship programs must retain good internships, yet research shows that 50% of internships are still unpaid. This paper addresses several concerns related to the discriminatory nature of unpaid internships. Methodology: This research began with literature review of internship definitions and practices, a review of current labor law, and survey results from internship providers specifically addressing aspects of unpaid internships. Findings: The National Association of Colleges and Employers has crafted a definition of internship yet does not include a concurrent statement concerning payment. In 2014, the National Society for Experiential Education produced a white paper advocating paid internship, stating that unpaid internship effectively discriminates against low income students who must work while in college. Recent commentary by labor activists compares unpaid internship to other types of unpaid work (one interesting comparison is to housework). They state that work is provided for financial reward and when unpaid work is expected based on gender or other non-leveling criteria, such as student status, it becomes exploitation (Swartz, 2013). In 2010 Intern Bridge, Inc. reported national survey results of 5,735 students that showed women are more likely to participate in unpaid internships, particularly in the arts. Economists refer to this as “feminizing influence” in the workplace since women are traditionally thought of as complacent and agreeable. Parallels have been drawn to unpaid internship where the intern is seen as a noncontributing member of the firm, an invisible non-employee whose job is to be agreeable, and who understands payment is not available for “learning” (Swartz, 2013). Litigation has revealed a predatory practice towards unpaid interns, and professionals have advised students not to give work away as this cheapens the profession (Czarnecki, 2014). Some internship programs, NYU and Columbia for example, have removed credit for internships to keep locations from claiming that credited internships do not require payment (The New York Times, 2014). Outdated labor policies mandating unpaid internship include this U. S. Department of Labor internship test criteria, developed in 1947 to determine illegal use of interns: “The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship” (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010). Recently, three federal judges questioned this test as too restrictive and not viable in today's’ economy. In 2014 the Brookings Institute published survey results of 43,000 graduating seniors from 700 universities showing 61% of them had participated in internship and of those internships, 53.5 % were unpaid (Venator and Reeves, 2015).A survey sample showed fifty percent of interior design internship providers still offer only unpaid internships, despite acknowledging the value students provide (Author, in press). At the same time studies have shown that paid internships are more valuable to providers and interns both, because when interns must add financial value to their firms they are given more significant tasks (Pologeorgis, 2015). Conclusion: A 2012 survey of 50,000 HR professionals commissioned by the Chronicles of Higher Education found that internship is the most highly ranked criteria an employer uses in hiring (Venator and Reeves, 2015). If the interior design profession values paid internship we must emphasize the importance of payment so all can participate. To insure the legality of paid internships we must collaborate with other disciplines to work politically to delete references to no wages for internship from federal labor guidelines. Finally we must market the value paid internships provide to our internship providers.


  • Czarnecki, J. (2014). Smells Like Teen Spirit, or Unpaid Internships. Contract Design Magazine, March, 2014, p. 10.
  • The New York Times. (2014, March). Good Steps Against Unpaid Internships: Editorial Board, The New York Times, Retrieved from
  • Pologeorgis, N. ( 2015, August). The Impact Unpaid Internships Have on the Labor Market. Investopedia, Retrieved from
  • Swartz, M. (2013, Winter). Opportunity Costs: The True Price of Internships. Dissent Magazine, Retrieved from
  • Venator, J. & Reeves, R. (2015). Unpaid Internships: Support Beams for the Glass Floor. The Brookings Institute, Retrieved from
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