Intern Architects Work for Free to Get IDP Experience?
by Gregory Hancks, AIA
AIA Associate General Counsel
Employment opportunities are limited for recent architecture graduates
who want to fulfill their Intern Development Program (IDP) training
requirement. Some firms may be wondering if they can “do good” by
giving intern architects work experience in unpaid positions. Generally
speaking, federal employment law dictates that the answer is “no.”
The AIA last responded to this question in the early 1990s during
another economic downturn. Then, as now, concerns were voiced about
how the scarcity of paying jobs could force intern architects into
other lines of work, never to return to the practice of architecture.
As a result, an entire age group within the profession could be depleted.
At the same time, concerns were voiced that intern architects can
be exploited by firms because of the pressure on intern architects
to obtain work experience for licensure.
More than 10 years ago, 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
unpaid intern architects. Ultimately, however, the issue is primarily
a legal one, not just a matter of AIA policy. Between abiding by
federal law, on one hand, and meeting the direct supervision training
requirements for IDP, as established by the National Council of Architectural
Registration Boards (NCARB), on the other hand, there remains little
room for unpaid architectural internships.
Federal law governing labor and employment generally places workers
into one of the following three categories:
- Employees—These individuals
are protected by minimum wage and other laws and therefore cannot
be unpaid. Whether an “employer/employee” relationship
exists is determined by objective factors and cannot be precluded
simply by the agreement of those involved. The
Department of Labor’s
Web site provides a good source of general information on this
topic. There are various exceptions to the applicability of minimum
wage laws to employees, such as for “apprentices” in
building trades, but none applies to intern architects.
- Independent Contractors—The
work terms of these individuals may be largely set by the parties’ agreement,
as long as the workers are not objectively determined to be employees.
NCARB policy, however, does not recognize work performed by independent
contractors as satisfying IDP requirements. (See page 30 of the
IDP Guidelines.) An independent contractor
typically does not work under the “direct supervision” that
is a hallmark of training.
- Volunteers—Federal law generally
prohibits workers from volunteering services to for-profit private-sector
employers, as explained on the Department
of Labor Web site. Individuals
may volunteer services without contemplation of pay to not-for-profit
organizations for public service, humanitarian, and personal objectives
but not as employees.
This leaves unemployed intern architects and the architects who
would wish to provide them with IDP experience (but can’t afford
to pay) somewhere between a rock and a hard place. The possibility
remains for intern architects to volunteer their services to nonprofit organizations that provide architectural services if the organization
can provide a work setting that qualifies under IDP Guidelines. And
it may be possible, as well, for intern architects to volunteer services
to public sector (state or local government) entities. In either
case, however, an intern architect would need to determine whether
a particular volunteer/supervisor arrangement would satisfy IDP or
state licensing requirements for training. In addition, the nonprofit
organization or public-sector entity would need to verify that using
the intern architect’s services without pay complies with federal
law. After all, nonprofit organizations must comply with employment
law with respect to workers they employ.