The United States is experiencing tough economic times and high levels of unemployment, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of young people taking unpaid internships to advance their careers. Unfortunately, current laws say that many unpaid internships are actually illegal because these positions do not qualify for the status of being “unpaid” as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The requirements of what constitutes an unpaid internship should be loosened to make it legal for more students to work for free if they choose to do so, thus allowing free market forces to dictate pay for interns.

Some analysts argue that unpaid internships are not only financially unfeasible but unjust as well (interns are not protected by certain employee discrimination laws, etc.) Yet the argument continues, many interns are reluctant to complain or question the legality of such internships, fearing that they will become known as troublemakers in their professional circles, and as a result, reducing their prospects for future, full-time employment. However, if an intern feels that an unpaid internship is something that they do not want to do, they would not do it in the first place. Laws requiring companies to pay interns would only punish those willing to forgo salary for the opportunity to gain valuable experience and enhance their resumes. Therefore, the free market solution—not more government regulation—is the best way to determine how much an employer should pay an intern.

Furthermore, unpaid internships benefit both parties involved, so there is little incentive for employers or interns to report violations, as Time Magazine reports. Another factor to consider is that if internships at a particular organization are unpaid or pay a small amount, more people would have the benefit of working for the employer.

Having only paid internships is analogous to having minimum wage laws– perhaps they could be of value under certain circumstances, but they should be used sparingly and thoughtfully. It should be up to an individual to determine whether the internship is the right opportunity with the necessary conditions (including how much money it pays.)

The six rules that must be adhered to for an internship to qualify as being unpaid are too strict. These rules should be loosened, especially the mandate that the employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the student.” This change would, again, more closely align both the interests of interns and companies, resulting in a mutual benefit for each. It is unfortunate when government intervention constricts the intentions and ambitions of individuals, and this sort of meddling should be reduced as much as possible, to cases such as where the internship is not educational, and is mostly menial tasks.

Aleksey Gladyshev currently is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: