July 10, 2009
  Can 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.


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For more information about the AIA’s policy on unpaid intern architects, contact the Institute’s General Counsel Jay Stephens or Associate General Counsel Greg Hancks.

As Associate General Counsel, Gregory Hancks, AIA, assists the General Counsel in legal matters affecting the Institute, including corporate governance, contracts, and intellectual property. He also serves as counsel to the AIA’s National Ethics Council. He is the author of the article on “Construction Contracts” in the 14th edition of The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, published in 2008.

Application of employment law in particular situations may be complex. You should consult a qualified lawyer when you need advice about employee/employer issues in your business.