Illustration by Christine Hipp.

In a competitive job market, students are encouraged to take internships, make connections and essentially get their foot in the door. You have to shake the right hands, work with the right companies and learn the skills you need to become undeniably employable.

Or at least, that’s how it should work.

But employers are taking on unpaid interns only to cushion their companies when they can’t afford to keep full-time staff.

Unpaid interns are oftentimes overworked without compensation or are hired under the guise of bettering their skills only to become a coffee-fetching, mail-sorting office drone.

Last year, two men took film giant Fox Searchlight to court for abusing their status as unpaid interns. The men argued that they weren’t taught new skills, but rather were made to do menial tasks more appropriate for an entry-level employee.

The men had been hired to work in production and accounting for the film “Black Swan,” but instead were left cleaning the kitchen and taking lunch orders for staff.

And now, this February, a 26-year-old woman is taking publishing giant Hearst Corporation to court.

The woman, who was hired as an intern, said she was overworked and unpaid, putting in 40–55 hours a week from August until December of 2011. Her lawyers assert she essentially served as free-labor for fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar, owned by Hearst. She is now seeking minimum wage and overtime pay for the months she worked for the company.

What these cases highlight is a clear need for regulation on the ways companies handle their unpaid interns. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, interns working for the for-profit sector can work without compensation if they do not displace other paid workers, if the internship serves a training and educational purpose, and the company does not immediately benefit from the intern.

Rather, an internship is “for the benefit of the intern,” according to the Department of Labor. When companies only take on unpaid interns to fulfill open, employed positions, they are abusing a system meant to train future generations of workers.

Interns are not employees of the company and they should not be treated as such. Interns are students and no matter their age or experience level, they are entering an unpaid position to learn and improve their skill set, not save a company money by replacing entry-level employees.

Internships are an extension of an education, not volunteer programs. Companies eager to take on unpaid interns should recognize this. They should be held accountable when they blatantly break U.S. labor laws.

Students should be wary of companies eager to abuse their status as an “unpaid intern.” But while there are many entry-level positions mislabeled as an internship, there are still legal, ethical and very rewarding internships available.

There may be companies that choose to exploit the labor of those trying to break into competitive industries, but there are also companies with structured, challenging and worthwhile internship programs that value education.

Prospective interns: know your rights, and good luck.