Students: Watch out for those unpaid video production “internships”

Internships can be very beneficial for students looking to get started in a particular industry. They’re a great way to see the profession from the inside, network with professionals, and quite possibly… may lead to your first job. I know plenty of young people who’ve landed their dream jobs all from impressing an employer during an internship.

You’ll find a lot of these internship opportunities in the video production business both paid and unpaid. With both, a well-structured internship can lead to a lot of industry knowledge that can’t be taught in the classroom. However, companies that hire unpaid interns should be approached with great caution. Many of these companies could be exploiting students, mostly young people, for free work.

Video production companies often need extra help on productions and hire assistants, runners, or interns to handle small tasks. If the intern is being paid, the intern is also considered an employee and can be asked to do almost anything in support of the production. If the intern is being unpaid and performing work, the production company could be violating the law.

Here’s the Craigslist post below that inspired me to write this blog. It makes me angry that video production companies would do this. This industry is very congested. It’s hard to get established, get a steady job, and get paid enough. It’s especially hard if you’re a student with college debt and companies want free labor out of you. 

What the FLSA says about unpaid internships

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) says that for-profit employers must pay all employees for their work. Interns may not be considered employees under the law depending on several “tests” that have been used in recent court cases. See the full guidelines here or contact the Department of Labor for more information. Here are the tests from the DOL:

    1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
    2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
    3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
    4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
    5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
    6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
    7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

How this applies to video production

An intern who simply observes a camera operator while working would not need to be paid. The intern might even be asked to help frame the shot or operate some of the controls under the direct supervision of the camera operator. In this case, the intern is recieving the primary benefit of learning and the employer is not getting much out of the relationship.

However, if the employer asks the intern to operate the camera in place of an employee, especially with no or limited supervision during an actual production, the employer could be violating the law if the intern is unpaid. The Department of Labor even admits that every situation is different and how much work the intern is doing does come into play.

Other things to consider is if the internship program is approved by the educational institution or instructor. The program should actually result in academic credit for the student. Thus, non-students cannot be offered internships. Production companies must also schedule interns in accordance with the student’s other academic responsibilities, such as exams and classes.

An unpaid internship program should also not promise any compensation whatsoever up front, even implied. The intern should also be informed that completion of the program does not necessarily entitle the student to a job. Otherwise, the unpaid intern may be considered an employee and must be paid according to the FLSA.

What students should watch out for

Educational institutions may have existing partnerships with local employers. Students should seek out these internship opportunities first. If an employer is offering an internship program outside of a formal partnership with the college or university, the student should have the instructor’s approval before applying. Be careful of internships posted on sites like Craigslist and make sure the program is outlined in writing.

Also, while paid internships provide an educational opportunity and an immediate financial benefit all at once, don’t immediately discount unpaid internship programs as well. An unpaid internship program with the right employer could result in a more rewarding career later on. Just make sure that an employer offering the unpaid internship isn’t trying to skirt the law and take advantage of you.

If you think an employer is violating the law, please contact your instructor and the Department of Labor. It is understandable that you may feel the need to “impress” an offending employer in order to receive future opportunities. But, I would venture to say that an employer that abuses their interns likely abuses their own employees as well.

How employers can be in compliance

Employers thinking of offering an internship program should reach out to local college and universities. That way students can find your program easier and the educational institution can help you create a well-designed internship program. Remember, internships should primarily benefit the student, not the employer.

Employers should also consult a labor and wage attorney first to make sure their program is in compliance with the law. Don’t mistake this blog post as legal advice. Also ensure that every employee in contact with an unpaid intern knows that they must not do any work to the extent a regular employee would, and must also be supervised.

Just a bit of personal advice, employers offering internship programs should just simply pay their interns. That way, your intern can be asked to do more, can learn more of the job, and know what’s it’s really like to be part of your team. If they’re a good fit, make them an offer after the internship has ended. Just make sure that all interns are allowed to put any other educational responsibilities first.

In conclusion… Whether paid or unpaid, internships can provide a unique educational opportunity for students. However, employers across all industries often abuse unpaid internship programs as a way to obtain free work either out of greed or just plain ignorance. Unfortunately, video production companies are often guilty of exploiting students. While we don’t offer internship programs, we can assure you that we pay our employees and contractors.

Here are some additional articles on internships that we like if you want to keep on reading!

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