Understanding and Documenting Internships Today

January 24, 2019

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of visiting scholars.

In 2014, Conde Nast paid $5.8 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by former interns who alleged that they were underpaid during the time they worked for the company’s magazines. The lawsuit was part of wave of legal action against private-sector employers using unpaid interns, a practice that has become pervasive across a number of industries over the last few decades but occupies a gray area under U.S. labor law. While in theory the Fair Labor Standards Act prevents employers from using unpaid interns unless they provide meaningful training and gain “no immediate advantage” from them, there is currently little information—let alone oversight—concerning how many interns are in the workforce, how their programs are structured, and what kind of skills and labor market advantages they might gain, making such positions vulnerable to exploitation.

At RSF, visiting scholar Carrie Shandra (SUNY–Stony Brook University) is undertaking an empirical study of the rise of internships, drawing from surveys, interviews, and a longitudinal dataset of online job and internship postings. In a new interview with the foundation, she discussed the challenges of studying internships, the role of college career offices in promoting and shaping internships, and the policies that could help create more legal protections for this notoriously ill-defined labor force.

Q. Although internships have exploded over the last few decades, there has been very little empirical research done on them. How are you studying internships? 

Much of what researchers know about national trends in U.S. employment comes from survey data—data that, unfortunately, does not include information about internships.  This means there are large gaps in our population-level knowledge of some foundational questions: Who participates?  How much do they earn (if anything)? Where do they work?  And, what types of internships help with future employment?  

Answers to these questions have implications for research on labor market inequities.  But they’re also relevant for practitioners who design internship programs, and for higher education and workforce development policies.  My project tries to inform these questions and understand how—often unpaid—internships have become a prerequisite for professional careers. 

I begin by documenting internship history.  “Internships” were reported in national newspapers over a century ago, and pundits have been speculating about how to address the supposed “skills gap” for just as long.  These issues parallel the rise of internship programs within colleges, so a coauthor and I also sampled historical course bulletins to trace when and how for-credit internship courses became embedded in academic curricula.  

Next, I describe the contemporary internship market using a database of over one million internship job advertisements posted between 2007-2016.  From these, I can quantify how employer demand for internship skills and requirements has changed since the recession—and how this varies by industry and labor market area.

School-based surveys allow me to understand student-level trends, including participation patterns by socioeconomic background, college major, coursetaking, and occupational goals.

Finally, in-depth interviews with internship recruiters, college career center personnel, and other key stakeholders help contextualize the numbers and elucidate what’s happening in practice.  From these, I analyze the internship hiring and recruitment process—including the programmatic constraints faced by colleges and employers.  

Q. Many private employers offer internships for college credit. How has this affected the way that college career offices operate?

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires for-profit employers in the U.S. to pay all employees—but there are certain conditions under which interns are not considered employees.  One of these conditions includes “the receipt of academic credit”, which is why many employers who hire unpaid interns typically require it.

But employers don’t provide course credit—colleges do.  And, like any other college class, an instructor needs to certify that students meet certain requirements.  This essentially puts the responsibility for determining credit-worthiness (and, indirectly, FLSA compliance) with college faculty or career center personnel.  Ideally, this would entail worksite evaluation, a clearly defined set of learning goals developed in tandem with the intern and the worksite supervisor, and continuous monitoring of progress toward those learning goals.  This level of oversight requires extensive investment of staff time and infrastructure.

Additionally, colleges typically want to develop and maintain positive relationships with employers, who can offer internship and job opportunities for students and recruitment revenue for career centers.  But not all employers follow internship best practices, and they often have different motives for hiring interns than students have for seeking internships.  In these instances, it may be challenging for career center personnel to manage employer relationships while promoting meaningful internship opportunities.

Q. Because interns occupy a gray area under labor law, they’re often exempt from federal protections for workers and vulnerable to exploitation. Are there policies that could close some of these loopholes?

France provides an alternative policy context.  Their internship law stipulates that interns must receive a minimum wage after two months. Additionally, it sets quotas on the number of interns a company can hire and provides legal protection against harassment. 

These sorts of policies, if adequately implemented, could address issues of exploitation and harassment among interns in the United States.  Alternatively, employers can pay their interns at least a minimum wage and avoid the FLSA’s internship exemption altogether—while providing more equitable access to opportunities for students who may not be able to work for free. 


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.