High school and college students often search out internships as a way to break into a field. Some schools require internships, as a way of preparing their students better for “the real world.” These days, lots of people are offering their services as “interns,” whether they are associated with schools or not, in the hopes of turning unpaid labor into a real job.
Taking advantage of these offers is tempting, but a private sector employer has to offer an educational opportunity to the intern, not just take advantage of free labor. A person’s offer to work for free does not insulate the employer from the obligation to pay at least minimum wage, unless certain criteria make the job a true internship.
The Department of Labor’s fact sheet offers guidance:
- 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;
- 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; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
The Department of Labor is concerned about employers bringing on an “intern” who is in reality a probationary employee, or someone who allows the employer to lay off a paid worker to do the same work. The intern may not complain, since he or she probably volunteered for the resume value of the internship, but the Department of Labor does have some enforcement teeth, and has been hiring investigators.
Employers can use interns to increase the enthusiasm level of the workplace, allow employees to enjoy the process of instructing young people in the world of work and the specific workplace, and engender good will with the interns themselves and the schools they come from. Although the interns can accomplish some necessary tasks, though, the truly exempt intern will probably cost as much as he or she contributes in the short run.