Internships in architecture have always been a bit problematic. The traditional apprenticeship model that ruled the profession until the 20th century sometimes made indentured servitude or serfdom seem like a better option. The increasing codification of architectural internship—defined as post-graduate, pre-registration professional work—under the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards’ Intern Development Program has given young professionals a clearer (if less flexible) road map to licensure. Yet the term “intern” itself is troublesome, since it’s commonly used across professions as code for someone who works for free. Last spring, the U.S. Department of Labor released standards for unpaid internships that should clarify what’s expected of both employer and employee under these circumstances. What do they mean for architecture firms? We turned to Michael Zetlin, a founding partner of the New York–based law firm Zetlin & De Chiara. Trained as a structural engineer at Columbia University, the Fordham Law graduate—who’s also an honorary AIA New York State member—has spent his quarter-century-long career specializing in construction law.

What’s the upside to the Department of Labor’s new standards?
You now have these factors that are implemented to determine if someone is an intern or an employee. It brings clarity, although the standards are still somewhat vague and open-ended in their interpretation.

What’s the core of the new standards?
These standards now serve as a guide for firms in determining whether someone will fit within the Department of Labor’s definition of an intern. They can treat them as an intern or as an employee, entitled to be paid minimum wage and overtime. Six standards are new:
(1) Internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
(2) Internship is primarily for the benefit of the intern.
(3) The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision.
(4) The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and, indeed, its operations may be hindered.
(5) The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job upon conclusion of the internship.
(6) Employer and intern understand that the intern is not entitled to payment for internship.

Do employers need to meet each and every one of these criteria in order to hire an intern?
Everything is based on the interpretation of the standards. There are no hard-and-fast rules here. It’s going to be viewed in its totality by what the firm is doing. Is the employer using the period as a trial period? That’s only a factor. If a person is possibly going to be hired after the internship period, then it’s likely they should be treated as an employee. That’s why it has to be looked at in its totality. If operations is one part of what they’re doing, and it’s clear they’re still being trained in other areas, on balance they’ll be favored as being an intern.

Young interns crave work on real projects. And yet it seems having an intern do that—working in “operations,” as the standards say—could make him or her an employee.
That’s one of the trickiest parts of how this is drafted and how it can ultimately be interpreted. Shadowing is OK. But an intern should not be left alone to do substantial drafting. As an example, if the intern is shadowing an architect for two weeks, and the architect asks them to take a stab at drafting a detail for two hours, and he critiques and modifies it, that wouldn’t shift the experience into employment, in my opinion. It’s the depth and intensity of participation in the process that is the determining factor.

What about the notoriety that some firms have for creating “internships” to get cheap labor?
If a firm is hiring an intern to substitute for somebody in their regular workforce, we know it’s not going to be an internship. You’ll have those black-and-white cases where it’s a clear violation. To the extent that firms have hired interns as a substitute for their workforce, that will disappear. To the extent that it creates fear in employers—that an intern is going to be classified as an employee—it might put some restraints on them.

But gray areas remain?
The ones that are most nettlesome are those where you really intend to hire an intern. You want to give them as much exposure and training as you can to the intern’s benefit because you enjoy training, you enjoy educating. It’s part of bringing up the next generation. You want to give them hands-on experience—not with any malicious motive or sneaky means of avoiding paying wages. But it can be interpreted that way.