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To Pay or Not To Pay Interns? That Is…Less of a Question Now

If you’re not yet familiar with the government’s recently revised stipulations for hiring unpaid interns, might I suggest pouring yourself a nice glass of Merlot, perhaps turning down the lights and putting on some Al Green, while you sit back and get to know them a little bit better…?

That’s because the Obama administration recently announced that it intends to crack down on companies that don’t comply with the rules regarding unpaid internships, in reaction to recent criticism that such practices unfairly favor privileged students and enable employers to take advantage of free labor.

Six Rules for Employers Offering Unpaid Internships
According to a document on Internship Programs, released in April by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, employers are not required by law to pay their interns only if they meet all of the following criteria:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Why All the Fuss?
So what’s so bad about not paying interns, anyway? You might ask. After all, shouldn’t they be grateful just for the opportunity to get real world work experience, network with industry professionals and get school credit?

In an ideal world, yes. But it seems that far too many employers have interns doing menial tasks that offer little educational experience or quality training.  Other companies, meanwhile, hire interns under the (false) promise that the interns will be offered a full-time position once their internship is complete. Another criticism of unpaid internships is that they favor students from well-to-do backgrounds whose parents are well-connected in the industry (and can afford to work for free) over those who come from lower-income backgrounds.

Unfortunately, many employers that fail to meet the above criteria still manage to get away with not paying their interns.  Illegal practices concerning unpaid internships often go unreported, it seems, because many interns do not file complaints for fear that they will lose their current internship or be branded as troublemakers and endanger their chances of future employment at other companies.

Advantages to Offering Paid Internships
Aside from helping organizations avoid any potential legal problems, offering paid internships offer a number of benefits for employers.  For one thing, paid internships help employers attract a bigger group of qualified individuals, as financial need prevents some highly qualified students from pursuing unpaid opportunities.  Paid internship also help ensure students stick to a time commitment; furthermore, students that are paid as if they are professionals are more likely to act the part, too.

Of course, now you might be asking: Why have interns at all if we have to pay them? In a recent Student Branding Blog post, career counselor Karen Obringer lists the following ways companies benefit from hiring interns:

  • Internships enable companies to train potential future employees
  • Interns provide new energy to the office
  • Interns provide new ideas and technology into the office
  • Interns can do the work that the full-time staff haven’t had time to accomplish or even start
  • Interns can help evaluate current company practices and offer suggestions of alternate options

Can’t afford to pay your interns? The career counselors at Washington University in St. Louis suggest that employers consider offering an alternative mode of payment, such as transportation reimbursement, free parking, complimentary meals, or free training or workshops.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree that employers take advantage of interns? Do you believe interns should be paid? How do you compensate your interns in other ways?

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
3 comments
andrea
andrea

Paid internships only.
Its an investment for the company down the road. Doing work the regular staff hasn't had time for is part of the problem, those would probably be the menial tasks and you need to hire an temp to catch up, and re-evaluate the workload of your employees.

I think too many companies see internship as free labour.

andrea
andrea

Paid internships only.
Its an investment for the company down the road. Doing work the regular staff hasn't had time for is part of the problem, those would probably be the menial tasks and you need to hire an temp to catch up, and re-evaluate the workload of your employees.

I think too many companies see internship as free labour.

Kare
Kare

I agree that interns should be paid. I've seen a lot of ads or work posts suggesting that the intern who is hired would be doing lots of work and must have such and such experience. I was under the impression that internships were for learning purposes, not purely for providing services to the company. I mean can anyone really afford to work for free?

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