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Can Student Interns Work for Free?

By Greg Hancks, AIA

AIA Associate General Counsel


The Institute frequently fields questions about whether internships can be unpaid. An article in the July 10, 2009 issue of AIArchitect discussed this question as it applies to architecture school graduates. Additional considerations come into play when the intern is a college student who is seeking experience before graduation.

As noted in the 2009 article, the AIA formally addressed the question of unpaid internships in the early 1990s during another economic slowdown. At the time, the AIA began requiring architects who seek to become Institute officers, directors, or Fellows (or to receive AIA awards or speak at AIA events) to confirm that they do not employ intern architects or architecture students without paying them. With respect both to graduates and to students who have not yet graduated, the AIA’s policy is intended to discourage AIA members from obtaining free work at the expense of emerging professionals who are under pressure to obtain experience.

In more recent years, the AIA policy as to working students has evolved. The issue is primarily a legal one, however, not just a matter of AIA policy. A possible out is provided by both federal law and AIA policy for firms that want to provide office experience to students.

As explained in the 2009 article, federal law generally places workers into three categories (employees, independent contractors, and volunteers), and establishes rules applicable to each situation. An entirely different circumstance is created when an architecture school has established an internship program in accordance with federal requirements. A student who is placed in an architecture firm under that school-run program is not working for the firm, and the federal minimum wage requirement in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not apply.

The U.S. Department of Labor has explained that someone who is working at a private firm, who is serving only his or her own interest, and who is given training or instruction by the firm is not considered to be employed by the firm and can therefore be unpaid. The department has listed six criteria that are used to determine whether an internship qualifies for exclusion from FLSA requirements:

    1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.

    2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

    3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

    4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

    5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

    6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Consistent with the government’s criteria, the AIA’s own policy against unpaid internships does not apply to a student when:

    • The individual is enrolled in a regular course of study calculated to lead to the award of a degree in architecture or other design-related discipline from an accredited educational institution

    • The individual is undertaking the unpaid internship for academic credit

    • The educational institution specifies that, in order to receive such academic credit, the individual is permitted to receive no (or only nominal) compensation in connection with the internship

    • Such an arrangement is consistent with the applicable laws and regulations of the jurisdiction (whether federal, state, or other) governing the situation.

Students and firms who want to pursue unpaid student internships should contact an accredited school to work within an existing internship program or to ask about establishing one.

For more information about the AIA’s policy on unpaid internships, contact the Institute’s General Counsel Jay Stephens or Associate General Counsel Greg Hancks, AIA.

This article is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws, suggestions, and illustrations apply to specific situations.


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