When is a job not a job?

No, it’s not a riddle. (At least not a very funny one.) But it’s a question which many recent college graduates are likely now asking themselves, particularly given the fairly bleak jobs numbers for April. The Paper of Record reports that new job seekers, facing a market where a paycheck is hard to come by, are turning to unpaid internships in record numbers. And while such positions were traditionally common in media and charitable foundations, they are now spreading across all sectors of the private market.

The idea is that such a position gets your foot in the door, teaches you valuable skills and gives you something to put down as the first entry on your resume. But for many who take on these positions, the reality is quite different.

Confronting the worst job market in decades, many college graduates who expected to land paid jobs are turning to unpaid internships to try to get a foot in an employer’s door…

Although many internships provide valuable experience, some unpaid interns complain that they do menial work and learn little, raising questions about whether these positions violate federal rules governing such programs…

Melissa Reyes, who graduated from Marist College with a degree in fashion merchandising last May, applied for a dozen jobs to no avail. She was thrilled, however, to land an internship with the Diane von Furstenberg fashion house in Manhattan. “They talked about what an excellent, educational internship program this would be,” she said.

But Ms. Reyes soon soured on the experience. She often worked 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., five days a week. “They had me running out to buy them lunch,” she said. “They had me cleaning out the closets, emptying out the past season’s items.”

Ms. Reyes finally quit when her boss demanded that she also work both days of a weekend.

We shouldn’t take this as a blanket indictment of the entire process. I’ve worked with companies – particularly in the computer industry – where summer internships have provided teams with some useful extra hands during the summer vacation season and those same students returned and landed good jobs right after graduating. But the temptation is obviously there for some less scrupulous employers to take on some desperate grads and work them like rented mules while offering little in the way of training or experience in return. Doug Mataconis expands on this idea.

There are blogs and Twitter accounts that make fun the entire process of the summer interns that make their way into the offices of the District of Columbia every year, and while most of them are probably an exaggeration they point out a very simple truth — if people know that you’ll work for free, they’re very likely to give you a lot of crap work to do. Now, many will argue that there are advantages to the internship idea because it has the potential to lead to a paying job somewhere down the line, or at least that it’s something to put on one’s resume for future job interviews.

I suppose there’s some value in that, although I’ve got to think that there’s far less value to it in an era where jobs are few and job applicants are plentiful than there was when the situation was reversed. If you’re going to go down that road, though, you probably need to go into it with both eyes open and realize that you’re not just the lowest guy on the totem pole, you’re not even on the totem pole.

I wouldn’t steer people away from the idea of an internship if you’re simply not getting anywhere in your first job search, but it’s definitely a case of caveat emptor. Look over the conditions before accepting the assignment and determine – if you’ll pardon the phrase – precisely how much crap you’re willing to take in exchange for a chance to get your career kick started. And keep in mind that people who are not paying you are not due the same level of loyalty as a full employer, so if something good, including a paycheck, comes along, feel free to grab it.

The downside to the intern situation is that you still have to support yourself. This may be contributing to the increasing numbers of young adults returning home to live with mom and dad. If that’s not an option, you’d best hope that you’ve either got a friend with a couch you can sleep on or a trust fund.