It’s summer, a time when you may have some new faces around the workplace. Eager college or even high school students are taking their place alongside experienced workers in the hopes that a summer of real-world experience will give them valuable insights into their chosen careers and maybe even give them a leg-up when they enter the job search in earnest.
Internships can be a win-win for both the employer and the intern, but there are pitfalls to avoid. For one, the legality of unpaid internships has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and some high-profile lawsuits have made many employers wary of using unpaid interns. But employers should consider more than just the rules surrounding compensation.
Interns are inexperienced and unproven, and managing such workers can be a challenge. InternMatch, an online system linking students and employers, offers tips on how to manage these short-term workers. One tip is to assign an intern one manager—one who enjoys working with students.
“Students can accomplish big goals when given the right amount of guidance,” a blog on the InternMatch website says. “But, they are new to the work-world and your industry, and so if thrown out to sea and told to start paddling they won’t know what your expectations are or where to start. Ultimately, you want to find someone on your staff who enjoys sharing his or her expertise with young people and is going to be committed to helping the interns.”
InternMatch’s tips also include making sure an intern has a project. Start with something small and easily managed that will show the intern’s strengths and weaknesses. Then another more overarching project can be assigned that will allow the intern to stay focused and learn quickly. Set weekly goals for the intern, and meet every week, maybe for coffee or in some other informal setting, to check in and answer questions.
InternMatch also advises employers to break assignments down and closely supervise work. “Interns are new to the professional world, so by having them complete drafts lets you point them in new directions, before going down a wrong road,” the tips list says.
A legal danger zone in the world of internships concerns payment. Many potential interns are willing to work for free just to have some experience to put on a resume, and many employers are eager to bring them on. But the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has specific guidelines on when an unpaid internship is and is not permissible under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The DOL applies a six-part test to determine when an intern in the for-profit private sector can be unpaid. All six criteria must be met.
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
- The intern does not displace regular employees but works under close supervision of existing staff.
- 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.
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
A little history and a look ahead
Statistics tell a story about internships. Research from InternMatch shows that 81 percent of the employers they surveyed said they have a better experience with new hires who have intern experience, and 37 percent of students say internships are a good job-search resource. But the success of internship programs didn’t come about overnight. Today’s internships got their start in the 11th century with the apprenticeship system, according to InternMatch research.
The first academic internship in the United States was created in 1906 in the accounting department of the University of Cincinnati. In the early 1980s, just three percent of college students completed internships before graduation, but 80 percent of college seniors had completed at least one by 1999, according to InternMatch’s research.
The latest iteration of interns has gone digital. Now 33 percent of employers hire “virtual interns,” those who use technology to do their work remotely, InternMatch says. The organization surveyed more than 100,000 students and found that 59.3 percent were willing to take a virtual internship although they still prefer to work in an office.