Working with interns offers benefits for both the business and the student. Students get to put their new skills to some practical use, and businesses have the opportunity to test out and train new talent. There are several different terms used for these workers, and there are some important distinctions between the different types of student workers.
You will need to be very careful when designing an unpaid program to ensure you are complying with state and federal employment regulations. Even so, there are some serious benefits. While there is no expectation of employment, that does not mean that you cannot make offers to the most talented interns you bring in. In addition, a good program creates the image among the student body that your company is a desirable place to work. Perhaps the most important aspect is that it is understood by both parties whether the position will be paid or not.
Volunteers: This is the most restrictive category of worker. The Department of Labor requires that volunteers be engaged in work for charitable or humanitarian purposes for which they are not compensated. There are very few situations where businesses will make use of volunteers.
Unpaid Intern: This designation is still very restrictive, but will be far more common. Offering unpaid internships does not mean obtaining free labor. You may not benefit directly from unpaid interns, and they may not replace paid employees. While they will perform some tasks and operate company equipment, they must be treated like trainees instead of employees. Another difference is that while they may receive credit for their work, there is no expectation of employment when the internship is over.
In the end, how you classify your paid student workers is not important. Once they are being paid at least minimum wage they are legally employees, and what you call them is simply a way to ensure that both parties understand the nature of their relationship.
Paid Intern: Once the student is being paid at least minimum wage for their time, you have more options. Paid internships are a balance of giving the student the training they need, while still gaining some benefits from their time.
Apprentices: In the US, this function has been taken over by trade schools., but is still used in some trades. An apprentice works for a professional for a number of years in order to obtain the knowledge and experience and required to pursue that trade.
Student Employee: Many companies hire students to obtain inexpensive labor and to cultivate talent. The only difference is that internships often come with the possibility of school credit and may include more of a learning component.
For more information about designing the perfect internship program, download the Employer Guide to Structuring a Successful Internship Program.