Could Unpaid Interns Help Your Business Afford the Workforce It Needs?

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Could Unpaid Interns Help Your Business Afford the Workforce It Needs?

Finding employees for your business can seem a Herculean task. Not only do you want to attract workers with talent, skills and a professional demeanor; you want them to come at a price you can afford. Striking a balance can be difficult. But what if you could take on freshly-educated individuals for NO cost - as in hiring unpaid interns? Let’s explore the concept and see if this practice could provide a practical solution for expanding your business’ workforce.

It seems like a fairly simple idea: To hire those with education and interest in your field - without needing to pay them - in exchange for contextual, valuable on-the-job experience. It’s a bit more complicated than that, however. According to, there are very specific criteria for defining and administering legal unpaid internships which pertain to the intent, extent, expectations and parameters of the agreement. They are:

  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 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 providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  5. There is no guarantee of a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. Both parties understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the internship.

As you can see by the guidelines above, you can’t just ask that someone work for you for free and expect their undying appreciation in return. There has to be a concrete benefit in the arrangement for the intern as well as for you. That being said, how could hiring an unpaid intern benefit your business?

Benefits of hiring an unpaid intern

No wages to pay. Clearly, the most obvious benefit to the employer is that you will have a new member of your team whom you won’t need to pay.

A fresh face. An intern can provide fresh energy to your business. Anxious to parlay recently-gained education into actual experience in the field, an intern can bring a sense of excitement and enthusiasm to her position.

An employment “screening” opportunity. While, as #5 above states, an internship doesn’t guarantee a paid position at its conclusion, it is an opportunity to experience a particular person’s skill set and work habits. A successful internship may make you aware of an individual you’d gladly hire. In such a case, you would have an employee who would be at least partially trained and already familiar with your business’ operation.

A chance to contribute to local educational programs. Offering internships allows you to support students and the schools they attend by providing real-world work opportunities to validate and enhance their curriculum. This improves the overall quality of graduates, creating and maintaining a more talented potential employee pool.

Benefits of unpaid internships for students

Unpaid internships provide value to the students who participate in them as well as the employers who make them available. Making these benefits evident to prospective interns will make your opportunity attractive to them:

On-the-job experience. In addition to college credit, interns gain practical, real-world experience operating in an actual work environment. It gives them an opportunity to exercise not only their technical skills learned in the classroom but to learn and practice basic employment behavior, like interacting with coworkers, adhering to workplace rules and fostering good work habits. This on-the-job experience also can be highlighted on a resume as relevant, industry-related work experience.

A bridge between school and the working world. Operating in an actual work environment demonstrates the correlation between educational material and its real world application. Interacting with others working in the field gives interns a more contextual experience of their industry than the classroom can provide. Interns will experience what it’s really like to work in their field of study and perhaps hone their job choices accordingly.

Professional networking opportunities. When working in a professional work environment, an intern will rub elbows with others working in her industry; something that is unlikely in academia. Experience working with people in the same field will help interns to seek out colleagues more easily and have greater confidence interacting with them.

Best Practices for Successful Internships

Investopedia says that the best practices for successful internships for educational institutions, employers and students/interns, as identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), are:

  1. The student's experience with the employer should emphasize a unique job or career-related activities that the student could not otherwise obtain outside the specific internship.
  2. The employer should inform company managers and supervisors of the objectives of the internship program and the presence of the intern.
  3. The employer should provide a company and worksite orientation that clarifies internal rules, operating procedures, and internship expectations.

It’s important to undertake the hiring of unpaid interns with great care. Consult a local employment law attorney to be certain that you are following all federal and state regulations regarding unpaid interns.

You could discover some ”diamonds in the rough” by hiring unpaid interns to gain work experience in your business. For best results, remember to go into the experience with your eyes open. Hiring unpaid interns benefits your bottom line and it benefits their professional development - a win-win!

Would you consider hiring an unpaid intern to work at your business?

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