Even though we're led to believe that internships are the key to successful careers, we're also wary of companies that take advantage of the free labor, relegating interns to coffee runs or leftover tasks that don't enhance professional development. Students, new graduates, or even professionals looking to change careers and gain experience in an unfamiliar field can avoid being taken advantage of if they know their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). For example, unpaid internships are legal under federal law, but only if it meets specific criteria, and too often companies play fast and loose with the details of an internship in attempts to qualify. Here's the best advice from employers and labor activists about what to look for in a company's internship program.

1. Be clear if the position is paid or unpaid

The FLSA requires employers to pay employees for their work, but what defines an "employee" from an "intern?" Officially, courts impose the "primary beneficiary test," which is a loose set of criteria that only defines the difference in terms of how the employer and the intern understand the position. Namely, if the internship provides more benefits to the employer in terms of labor, cost, and company services, then the intern must be regarded as an employee. Conversely, if the position provides professional training comparable to an educational environment, enhances (rather than inhibits) the intern's coursework, and both the employer and intern clearly understand that no paid job is promised at the end of the program, then (and only then) is it legal to not pay an intern. Additionally, if the company is a non-profit, then they're granted an exception and may count unpaid interns as volunteers

2. Look for positions relevant to your field

The point of an internship is to gain professional experience and training. Look for opportunities that have built-in support systems to provide hands-on experience in the field of your choice. Be clear about what duties will be expected of you in the position.

3. Ask about mentors

In addition to gaining experience, the goals of an internship include meeting mentors who are invested in your progress. Particularly strong programs allow interns to access higher level executives. This will not only help you network in your professional future, it will enhance your understanding of the field.

4. Be aware of time commitment and living costs

Since unpaid internships can't guarantee a paid position at the end of the program, pay attention to how long the internship lasts and if the time investment will be worth it. Be careful to consider if your lifestyle can be maintained for that duration of time. Even if the position is a paid opportunity of your dreams, like the Disney College Program, be clear if the internship is limited to one-semester or longer. For example, the Disney internship is only available to enrolled students, lasts one-semester, and requires an application fee as well as a housing fee.

5. Relocation

The last point is especially crucial if an internship requires relocation. Ideal opportunities are worth the sacrifices of time and even creature comforts, but they need to be feasible. If you're required to relocate, don't jump to apply unless you're reasonably certain you have the means and willingness to change your environment. Does the internship offer housing? Is there's a fee, how much is it? Does the program compensate transportation costs? Be certain you know the answers before you apply.

Internships are strong enhancements on resumes and can introduce you to a network of professionals to begin your new career. However, legalities and logistics are vital to work out before you apply to a program that could take advantage of your time, energy, and skills.

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