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A man holds up a sign that says "Will work for free."

Kai Ryssdal: Used to be you got out of college, you got a job, and went about your merry career-making way. Now, doesn't quite work like that. Internships are where it's at. During school or just afterward. And you're happy to have 'em. All eager, hoping to land that first job.

But change your frame of reference for a second. Say you're not just out of school. Say you just got laid off and couldn't find another job? How does working for free sound?

Marketplace's Sean Cole has more on the changing face of "intern nation."


Sean Cole: I wanna tell you about a little company in Indiana called Roundpeg.

Lorraine Ball: We do marketing for small businesses.

Lorraine Ball calls herself creative director.

Ball: And it's my company, so I can call myself anything I want!

Cole: That's right.

Ball: And that's this week's title.

Cole: What was last week's title?

Ball: Um, mom! I think I went with mom last week.

Because most of her staffers are under the age of 26, which makes sense. The company does a lot of social media work, on Twitter and Facebook. As a rule her interns tend to skew young, too. But after the recession hit, that rule broke.

Ball: Probably about two or three years ago we started seeing non-traditional interns applying to us.

"Non-traditional" means older folks, mid-career. Roundpeg gets about 100 internship applications a year, out of which the older applicants make up...

Ball: Maybe 10 percent.

Cole: Ten percent!

Ball: Mmhm. I'm talking to people about being interns who are going to actually report to people who are five and 10 years their junior. Wow! How's that gonna work?

But it did work -- well, she say -- particularly with the third older intern she took on. Here she is.

Jennifer Riley Simone: Jennifer Riley Simone.

I just love that name.

Simone: Jennifer Riley Simone.

She was a stay at home mom for about 14 years and last fall she wanted to get back into the workforce. She was 41.

Cole: And how old was the person who trained you to use Twitter and Facebook and all that?

Simone: She was 23 or 24 years old.

Jennifer Riley Simone had never even been on Twitter before the internship and now she has a couple of social media clients of her own -- grossing her about $40,000 a year.

Simone: People will say, "Oh, I could never go get an internship I have to make money." And they're out of work! And they're looking for a job and they're not doing anything to make themselves more marketable. And you can spend 20 hours a week in an internship and then spend the other 20 hours a week looking for a job.

Which is what a career counselor will generally tell you these days.

Karen Palevsky: What do you have to lose?

...They'll say. Especially if they're a career counselor named Karen Palevsky in New York. About eight out of her last hundred or so clients have gone for it.

Palevsky: One out of 10, maybe 1 out of 15 -- so what is that, 10 percent? Maybe 7-10 percent.

But there aren't any empirical numbers for mid-career interns in the U.S. And yet I read an article about this on the web the other day with the headline "Unpaid Jobs: The New Normal?"

Cheri Butler: I would not call it "the new normal" whatsoever. Not even close.

Cheri Butler is president of the National Career Development Association.

Cole: What would you call it?

Butler: A trend that has grown somewhat.

"Unpaid jobs! A trend that has grown somewhat!"

Cole: Are more companies depending on what amounts to free labor now?

Butler: I don't think they're depending on it, no. And they can't actually.

By law. The U.S. Department of Labor issued a directive last year defining what an internship is and isn't. An intern is not to displace an employee. An intern is not entitled to wages or a job at the end of the internship. And most important...

Butler: The person, the trainee, the intern, whatever you wanna call them, has to benefit more from the experience than the employer.

In other words, by law, internships are all about training the Jennifer Riley Simones of the world.

Simone: I definitely got more out of this internship than they did.

And not about helping out employers like Lorraine Ball of Roundpeg.

Ball: Like, I couldn't bring in an accounting student and call it an internship.

Cole: Right.

Ball: Because I can't teach. I really can't teach that person anything about accounting. Yeah, no.

And she made a point of saying she doesn't take on just any out-of-work, mid-career candidate who walks through the door. There are those who seem like they'd have trouble reporting to a supervisor half their age. In fact, one older prospective intern assumed that all of the young staffers at Roundpeg were interns themselves. That person was not invited back.

I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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