Are unpaid internships worth it?

During your internship search, it’s important to understand the differences between a paid and unpaid opportunity. Working for free may not sound like the best way to spend your time. However, there are other benefits that can offset the lack of monetary value and make it worth your while. So before you decline an unpaid internship, consider every aspect of the opportunity. Learn more about how an unpaid internship works and what incentives are available.

Man and woman with documents in an office, smiling, close up

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires for-profit employers to use the “primary beneficiary test” to determine whether an intern or student should be considered an employee. If a student is considered an employee, the student must be paid. Below are the 7 standards for the primary beneficiary test:

  1. The intern must clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation.
  2. The internship must provide training that would be similar to that which would be
    given in an educational environment.
  3. The internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated
    coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The internship accommodates the intern’s academic schedule.
  5. The internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides
    the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees
    while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without
    entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

An unpaid internship is in no way, shape, form, or fashion designed to replace an employee. An intern that is unpaid should not be spending  more than twenty percent of their time doing busy work. This includes errands, filing, answering phones, and correspondence among other things. You are protected by law as an unpaid intern so you shouldn’t have to worry about becoming the office errand person. If this does happen, contact your school career office immediately and let them know about your situation.

Benefits of taking on an unpaid internship may include:

  • Academic Credit – This incentive can be offered in paid and unpaid internships. The employer must establish concise learning guidelines that are agreed upon by both the school and the employer. Choosing an internship for academic credit can potentially suit your needs better than learning in a typical classroom setting.
  • Scholarships – There are some organizations that will offer scholarships to students who participate in unpaid internships.
  • Travel Stipend – To make a commute easier for interns, companies may provide traveling expenses. Since many college students are on a fixed budget, unaccounted for public or personal traveling expenses can add up.
  • Benefits – Completing an internship can at times lead to full time employment. Your time as an unpaid intern can turn into benefits that will roll over once you become a full-time employee.

Paid internships may differ from unpaid internships in terms of workload and flexibility. If you are being paid for an internship, you may be treated more like an employee. You are more obligated to do whatever work is assigned to you no matter how tedious and repetitive it may be, unless of course the learning contract you have in place with your school and employer prohibits this.

No matter what internship you choose, don’t disqualify an opportunity based on pay or no pay. Choose the internship that will stimulate your mind, offer you a great learning experience, and potentially lead you to a full-time opportunity after college.

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3 Easy Ways to Improve Your Internship Program Today

While internships are indeed a pipeline for fresh talent and new faces around the office, internship programs (like interns) often need a push to get going. Once that push has been given, it can turn your internship program from competent to great and from an opportunity into a process that delivers consistent results.

To be most effective, the nurturing process should start before the internship itself begins. Getting your interns up to speed on your organization, and conducting a thorough vetting process will set appropriate expectations and prepare them well to start off on the right foot. So, how do you do this exactly?

Hand pointing to Internship concept

Tip #1: Prepare Interns for Success

What are the chief things that employers should be screening for when it comes to finding those interns that are a cut above the competition? In addition to seeking candidates that study a relevant field, have job-related skills, or even have previous experience to bring to the table, you’ll also want to look for interns that have certain soft skills and personal traits that make them easy to train and pleasant to work with like determination, good problem solving skills, and open-mindedness.

Explain what a typical day might look like for your internship candidates. Does your interviewee have a lot of questions along the way? That may show your potential intern is inquisitive and ready to learn. Ask your candidates about their goals after graduation. Have them tell you about classroom experience that would help them do the job. Find out why they want the internship. Are they eager to learn or are they just checking a box for their resume?

Preparing your interns for success starts by choosing the right interns for the job. If you need good communication skills, make sure your interviewee speaks well, explains herself clearly, and brings a writing sample or two. If you need someone more analytical, give them a problem to solve. Leave the room for 10 minutes while she comes up with a solution and then discuss. Find out her thought process. Are her critical thinking skills in line with what you are seeking?

All of the questions you ask in your internship interview should be designed to efficiently locate the interns that are really passionate about the field and have the necessary skills, traits, experience and open-mindedness to be a good fit.

Tip #2: Run an Intern Orientation

Having an orientation for new interns is the best way to establish clear expectations early on let interns know what’s expected of them if they’re to succeed in their new role.

Interns should know from the outset the short- and long-term goals of the internship and how this internship fits in with the company.

Orientations should make the company ethos clear, if it isn’t already, and clue interns in on what they need to do to meet future performance evaluations, daily responsibilities required to successfully carry out the internship, and important company policies to always bear in mind when speaking with superiors and employees as well as present and future clients.

In the orientation you also want to outline a blueprint for how intern supervisors can facilitate the internship experience in a way that enlarges, rather than detracts, from your business resources.

Even if you are a small organization, orientation is a must. Orientation can be a big group session or a simple conversation between intern and supervisor, but it shouldn’t be swept aside just because you only have a few employees.

Tip #3: Set Up a Mentor Program

A mentor program is essential for getting (and keeping) everything off on the right foot.

When mentors first meet with their interns, they should be supportive yet set up clear and practical expectations that both nurture an intern’s development and abet contributions to your overarching organization.

One of the things that mentors don’t often think about – but actually play a huge role in the success of internships – is making sure that the mentor’s schedule is aligned with the interns.

If there are days when mentors or interns are underused or super busy, then your schedules need to align accordingly to make up the difference and synergistically reap more from the mentor-intern relationship.

Want more help on improving your internship program. Download our free Employer Guide that can teach you tips on writing more interesting internship descriptions, show you how to set up a learning contract, discuss legal considerations for bringing on internships and more.

Download the Employer Guide to Creating a Meaningful Learning Experience for Students