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  • Oregon Has Strict Policy for Employers Looking to Post Unpaid Internships

    March 22, 2021 | By Kevin Gray

    Best Practices
    A hiring manager discusses posting unpaid internships.

    TAGS: best practices, internships, compensation, operations, policy, faculty, recruiting, spotlight

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals

    The members of the employer engagement team in the University of Oregon’s career center see themselves as being a resource for both their students and for the employers that want to connect with their students.

    “Helping employers to understand best practices in recruitment policies, as well as the importance of creating equitable and inclusive hiring and retention practices, is a priority for us,” says Johanna Seasonwein, associate director for employer engagement at University of Oregon.

    Resource: Criteria for Assessing Opportunites and Compensation
    NACE issued a position statement that addresses the criteria for assessing opportunities and determining the implications for compensation. This statement can provide a framework for developing a policy to guide your practice.

    “Unpaid internships fall under this. We are always educating employers on why we think that everyone should pay their interns. It’s important for us to have a policy about job postings for unpaid internships so we have something to point to when making and communicating our decisions.”

    The University of Oregon’s policy follows guidelines from NACE and from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, and was developed in consultation with the university’s general counsel.

    For employers to demonstrate that their internships are for the student’s primary educational benefit, it needs to be clear that:

    • The opportunity is going to align with the student’s educational goals;
    • There is going to be significant training and mentorship available; and
    • It is not a position for which if the employer didn’t have the contributions of the intern, it wouldn’t be able to conduct its business.

    “If the business relies on the work of the intern, the intern should be considered an employee and, therefore, they should be compensated for their labor,” Seasonwein explains.

    “That’s really how we interpret the Department of Labor’s guidelines and where we draw a line in the sand.”

    Seasonwein says that it is important to note that the University of Oregon’s career center does not hold nonprofits to the Department of Labor’s standards, as those specifically apply to for-profit companies.

    “We hope that nonprofits will pay their interns,” she says, “but we understand that they may not always have that in their budget, and we don’t want to prevent our students from accessing opportunities to help make a difference in their community by interning at a nonprofit.”

    In some cases, postings from for-profit employers seeking unpaid interns simply reflect the employer’s unfamiliarity with the law, which, Seasonwein notes, is especially true with early stage start-ups looking for help getting their company off the ground, growing it, finding new clients, driving sales, marketing, and more.  

    “Many internship descriptions read like job descriptions, with a clear primary benefit to the employer,” she says.

    “They seem to think that requiring credit gives them a free pass, but it does not as credit is between the student and the school, not the employer. Furthermore, the student has to pay for those credits, meaning that taking on that unpaid internship will actually cost them money. That becomes an equity issue as not only are there students who can’t afford to work for free, but who can’t pay to have the opportunity.”

    Seasonwein explains that staff have set a high bar for for-profit organizations when it comes to posting unpaid internships at the University of Oregon.

    “We usually don’t see enough evidence in the information that employers are sharing with us to convince us that they will meet that bar,” she says.

    Seasonwein says that, more often than not, the career center declines unpaid internship postings from for-profit employers. The career center shares its policy with links to the NACE and Department of Labor guidelines so employers understand the requirements.

    In addition, a member of Seasonwein’s team who is focused on connecting with local and regional employers will often help them understand the law and construct an internship program that provides a positive experience for them and for the students.

    Seasonwein offers recommendations for developing and enforcing a formal policy about postings for unpaid internships:

    • Consider your values—Think about what values are important to your office when communicating with students and employers about creating inclusive, equitable workplaces that are going to create high-quality experiences for students. If one of the ways a school feels it can help make that change is by having a strict policy on unpaid internships at for-profit companies, look at NACE and Department of Labor guidelines and at peer institutions to see what they are doing. Different schools have different levels of comfort in accepting unpaid internships, so each school has to decide where it will draw the line.
    • Work with faculty—Help ensure everyone is on the same page by including faculty in the affected programs. For example, if Seasonwein makes the decision to decline a posting for an unpaid intern from a particular film production company without conferring with the professor in that area, the professor wouldn’t know that production company is interested in connecting with her students and the students might miss out on opportunities. It is important to bring faculty into those conversations when appropriate.

    Having a formal policy helps Seasonwein and her team with consistency when considering postings seeking interns.

    “Everybody internally knows what is expected and they can look to our guidelines when deciding whether or not to approve a posting,” she says.

    “If we didn’t have it written as a policy and didn’t enforce it, we could be treating each employer differently and inadvertently privileging some employers over others, for example, by responding to a ‘squeaky wheel.’ Our goal is to treat everyone the same and a formal policy helps us do that.” 

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