To start with, the long recession has hit young people especially hard. For many college students and recent graduates, one of the most attractive paths into the workforce has become an internship, often unpaid. Depending on whom you ask, internships offer the experience needed to get a first job, or -- some argue -- have begun to erode the entry-level job market itself.

Felicia Melvin got used to sleeping on the bus, when she was commuting from Philadelphia to to her internship at CBS in New York City.

"Basically I woke up every day around 5 [a.m.], took the Greyhound every day," said Melvin. "It was important to me to be there because, initially, I went into the internship hoping for a job."

She was a communications major at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., at the time. To make time for school, a part-time job and the internship, she worked seven days a week. At CBS, she worked in the creative services department, mostly putting together promos.

"Like if you turn on channel 10," Melvin explained. "And they tell you later on at 10, check out this story about whatever."

Most memorably, she went out on a video shoot for a commercial.

"It was really cool to see them actually direct something, put something together from scratch," she said.

Melvin did think sometimes she should get paid, but wanted a recommendation and she felt intimidated.

Weighing the worth of unpaid experience

Melvin got the internship through the career programs office at Cabrini.  Nancy Hutchison, who runs that office, uses phrases such as "learning objectives" and "professional workplace experience."

"Employers want them to have that internship, co-op placement," said Hutchison. "Especially in today's economy, it has become essential." 

Hutchison makes the criteria for an unpaid internship clear to students and to employers. Students must receive training.

U.S. Department of Labor rules say the employer "derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded."

Hutchison said when internships aren't what was promised, she speaks up for students.  

"I think most people -- students, faculty, employers -- have been very pleased with the quality of student that they get in the workplace," she said. "I really don't have to market the programs too much anymore because I think our students working with employers do that for us."

Hutchison said students pursuing internships do pay attention to whether they pay.

At Cabrini, students must receive academic credit for all internships and get graded on their performance. Students at the college pay about $2,000 per credit/hour. Hutchison said the college highly recommends that students complete up to 12 credits in intern positions.

"Our students are working sometimes two and three jobs and so, in order to do a co-op or an internship, they need income. Otherwise they're going to have to -- I don't know how they're going to manage everything," she said.  "They've got great time-management skills."

In Cabrini's intern program, only about 40 percent of positions are paid. More business internships pay while marketing positions pay sometimes.

'Nothing more than wage theft'

Ross Eisenbrey, who directs the liberal think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, said he has seen unpaid internships advertised in surprising areas such as retail and manufacturing.

"You used to get the experience, the contacts, the connections, the resume-building and you got paid for it," said Eisenbrey. "The difference is, now, the employers are keeping that money and to me it's nothing more than wage theft."

Eisenbrey is not the only person who thinks so. Three class-action lawsuits have been filed against Fox Searchlight, Hearst and Charlie Rose for back pay. A law firm in New Jersey is billing itself as the first practice dedicated to unpaid intern lawsuits.

When the Department of Labor issued a memo in 2010 reminding employers of the legal boundaries of internships, many interpreted that as a sign the department planned to crack down, maybe lay down some some high-profile penalties. The new Solicitor of Labor, Patricia Smith, had initiated investigations as Labor Commissioner of New York. 

That didn't happen and investigations remain complaint-driven. The Labor Department, which still does not track intern cases, can provide no data on how many it has handled. Labor departments in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware also do not track intern cases.

Felicia Melvin graduated in May. She hasn't found a job in television and is spending her days answering questions at the National Constitution Center.