What It Is

Internships are educational opportunities for students, and sometimes non-students, achieved by performing work, being mentored, and receiving other training at a business or non-profit organization. Internships allow the intern to become familiar with industries that interest them, network in those fields, and gain practical work experience. While an intern may perform valuable work for the company, internships are primarily for the benefit of the intern.

Internships can be paid or unpaid. If an internship is unpaid and located at a for-profit organization, the internship must meet certain criteria so as not to break Department of Labor (DOL) minimum wage laws. Essentially, all employment must be remunerated (that is, paid). This guide will discuss these criteria in greater detail below, but a good rule of thumb is this: if the work performed by an intern is more or less identical to work that an employee would perform and/or is work that your organization needs to have done to in order to function, then the intern needs to be paid.


Why It Matters

Increasing numbers of white-collar employers are seeking out graduates that also have relevant work experience, even for entry-level positions. Undertaking an internship while in school is one way that students can gain this experience. It’s also a way in which your organization can shape the future of your field.

Internships are not equivalent, however, to entry-level jobs, and should not be treated as such. A good internship program will have clearly defined work assignments that provide interns with relevant field experience. This experience will be coupled with training, mentoring, and other professional development opportunities. An internship bridges traditional educational opportunities with work experience. Many students receive course credit for completing an internship.

Internships can provide a number of benefits for an organization beyond the work that interns perform. They can be a crucial way to build alliances with colleges and universities and other relevant organizations. Working with local colleges and universities through internship programs can open up a dialogue about the relationship between the industry you’re in and the education that students receive.

Internships can help with the public relations and branding of your organization. They introduce your organization to a new group of students every year, and these students may promote their experience to other students and individuals in the community. Internships also provide leadership opportunities for employees in your organization who supervise or mentor interns.

Perhaps most importantly, internships bring in fresh, new thinkers, and allow you to shape their understanding of the field. The internship experience can help you to identify promising talent in your field.[1] 


Paid or Unpaid?

In all but a few instances, for-profit organizations are required to pay interns. These rules do not apply to non-profits, since interning can be viewed as another form of volunteering. The US Department of Labor indicates that an internship can be unpaid only if the following criteria are met. These are the six criteria:

    • 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.[2]


The fourth point is flexibly interpreted by the Department of Labor, since these standards were originally written with blue-collar workers in mind and in a very different time period (1947, in fact). Essentially, “the employer… derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern” is interpreted to mean that the benefit to the employer is offset by the burdens to the employer. Those burdens might include time spent training, mentoring, or providing other professional development opportunities to the intern. In short, the intern should benefit more from the internship than the employer.[3] 


Understanding the larger impact of unpaid internships

Internship opportunities are booming. Students are looking for experience that will give their resume an edge, and many businesses are looking for ways to get work done cheaply. In 2006, before the recession, 84% of undergraduates interned while in college. Of these internships, only 64% were paid.[4]

The rapid proliferation of unpaid internships has serious consequences for the labor market and tax revenues. These internships reduce the number of available entry-level positions in a wide variety of fields by effectively replacing paid jobs, making it harder for new graduates to find employment. Unpaid workers are also workers that employers do not pay Social Security and other taxes on.[5] 

Unpaid internships also perpetuate the opportunity gap between students from mid- and high-income backgrounds and those from low-income backgrounds. Few people would dispute that an unpaid internship at a company in a person’s desired field of employment is likely to eventually yield higher returns than a temporary job at a fast-food chain. However, students enrolled in unpaid internships must first be able to afford to work for free. [6] Students faced with repaying student loans or whose families cannot support them while they intern are significantly less likely to be able to accept unpaid internships.[7]

For your particular business and your field, this also means that unpaid internships shrink the pool of potential interns and qualified future job applicants. Limiting internship opportunities to those who can afford to work for free means that many talented and capable potential applicants will not apply. Given the disparities in income in the United States along race and other demographic lines, this is likely to negatively impact diversity at your workplace and in your industry, both at the intern level and among entry level workers.[8] 

Additionally, interns are usually a poor substitute for an experienced employee base. They will need more training and attention, and will not have the same level of organizational commitment as a regular employee.  Unpaid interns are often not covered by the same labor and discrimination laws that protect other workers.[9] 


Getting Started

Steps for designing your internship program:

    • Step One: Brainstorm!
    • Step Two: Determine the duration of the internship and specific work assignments.
    • Step Three: Decide on who will supervise and mentor interns.
    • Step Four: Add training and professional development opportunities to your plan.
    • Step Five: Create a way for interns to track and report on their internship.
    • Step Six: Set clear expectations for your interns.
    • Step Seven: Identify and note the educational dimensions of your program.
    • Step Eight: Determine what resources your interns will need.
    • Step Nine: Have a plan for documenting your experience with the interns.
    • Step Ten: Step back and review.


Step One – Brainstorm

Think about your career in your field, your missteps and successes, and the relationship between your educational background and your work. What training or advice would have been beneficial early in your career? What experiences were helpful and which ones were dead-ends? How has the field changed and where do you think it is going?

Thinking through these questions will help you create an internship experience that will be valuable to your interns. If you are planning on creating internships in a variety of occupational fields that fall under your organization (for example, in the marketing and financial wing of your retail operation) talk with employees in those areas to create intern experiences specific to those professions. Alternatively, you might opt to create internships that introduce interns to a range of professional paths that contribute to the overall operation of your organization. This might be an especially valuable approach for fields where workers wear many hats, as is the case in many non-profits.


Step Two – Determine the duration of the internship and specific work assignments

First, determine how long the internship will run. Internships usually run concurrent with the school semester or summer. Your internship might last one semester, over the summer, or over the entire school year.

Interns need clearly described work roles, like any employee at your organization. Furthermore, interns want and need substantive work, not busy work. You may have more limited expectations of what they will accomplish over the course of the internship than you would of regular employee, but nonetheless ensure that the work you are giving them relates to the field in a meaningful way.

Ideally, the work assignments will result in some identifiable results that someone with little or no background can achieve over the length of the internship. This will make it easier for interns to report to their colleges and future employers that they achieved X and Y, and serve as a clear basis for any future recommendation letters that you might write for the intern.

Ask yourself what the educational value of a particular assignment is. Most jobs have repetitive or menial aspects, but if you find that the educational lesson of most or many of your assignments is something along the lines of “you have to learn that sometimes you just have to suck it up and do what your boss tells you,” go back to the drawing board!


Step Three – Decide on who will supervise and mentor interns

A sure path to internship failure is to create a great plan of action and then pass it off to an unsuspecting employee who did not anticipate having to supervise untrained workers over the summer.

Decide ahead of time, and in consultation with your employees, who will train and supervise interns. This person or people will likely need to invest a good deal of time in the internship program at the start of the program, and will need to be able to regularly meet with interns. They should ideally be involved in designing the program, or at least be very familiar with the program contours and goals. Interns will also need a designated person to report to and ask questions of.

Mentoring is also an important part of the internship experience. Their mentor might be the person who supervises them, but isn’t necessarily the same person. Mentoring can be done in a formal or informal way, and will focus on general professionalization as well as the specific skills and knowledge needed to perform the required work. You could assign each intern an official mentor, if it made sense to do so. Mentors can introduce intern to other people at the organization or at related organizations, give them honest feedback on their work, and share their career experiences and lessons. You could also organize a panel discussion among employees at which they can share their career experience and advice if you have multiple interns. This would allow iterns to get multiple perspectives on the field and could function as an additional professional development activity.


Step Four – Add training and professional development opportunities to your plan

Incorporate training and professional development opportunities of two kinds. The first is training that will your interns will need to complete their work assignments. Think about what people new to the field will need to learn. Depending on how your work assignments are structured, this training might be done all at once, intermittent, or at the outset of each new assignment.

The second is training and professional development that will benefit interns in their later careers. The second tier of training and professional development could take an array of forms, such as talks by other experts in the field, information sessions on relevant certifications, shadowing employees, or software and skill training not directly related to their immediate duties. Spread these out over the course of the internship. You might schedule a one to two hour session every other week.

If you are a small organization taking on only one or two interns, one approach to incorporating training of the second type is to allow time for these kinds of opportunities, and then tailor them to the intern’s interest and your organization’s capabilities once they begin. In some cases, taking on a project tailored to the intern’s interests can be a good way to learn new skills.


Step Five – Create a way for interns to track and report on their internship

Create a formal way for interns to track their progress in the internship. This will be helpful for them later on when they need to craft a resume, and will serve as a reference for any letters of reference that you write. Students may also need to have documentation of their work in order to earn course credit.

This can take many forms. Interns could write and submit succinct weekly reports, or keep a blog of their activities. They may write a report at the end of each project, or give a formal presentation about their work at the end of the experience. If you opt to have interns give formal presentations at the close of their internship, make sure that they have been documenting their work in some way throughout so that they have material to work with.


Step Six – Set clear expectations for your interns

We’ve covered work expectations, but you should also delineate expectations for interns that cover the basics of workplace comportment. Some of these expectations might be obvious to professionals in your field, but not to students. What this includes will vary widely by industry and occupation. Some things to consider are: intern dress, number of hours worked, start and stop times, work location, the lines of communication at your organization, and the use of phones, personal computers, and social media while working.


Step Seven – Identify and note the educational dimensions of your program

Reflect on your plan so far. Remember that internships bridge educational and occupational activities. Try to identify the educational components of the internship, and spell out what these are. You can use this in your recruiting efforts. Having this information may also be necessary if you are going to work with a university to advertise and potentially have the internship count for course credit.

Realize that “educational components” can be widely interpreted, and necessarily will be for this kind of experience. However, if you find that you will not be teaching students much that they aren’t likely to already know, adjust your plan accordingly.


Step Eight – Determine what resources your interns will need

Consider what resources your interns will need to do their work. This includes a work email address, possibly a phone number, a workspace, and computer. This might involve other equipment and tools depending on the kind of work they will be performing.


Step Nine – Have a plan for documenting your experience with the interns

In addition to keeping copies of the reports that interns create, supervisors should also keep track of their observations and thoughts about the intern’s progress. To streamline this process, you might create a simple worksheet with standard questions about their progress and comportment that you or the supervisor can fill out and add notes to at established points during the internship (once a month and at the end of the internship, for instance).


Step Ten – Step back and review

Review your plan, your reasons for starting a program, and assess the benefit to students. Consider if you are willing to invest the time and energy into this experience, and if you run a for-profit organization, if you are willing and able to pay your interns. Are the goals that you set for interns, including time for mentoring and other professional development opportunities, realizable over the course of the internship?



Going Further

    • Step One: Commit to paying your interns.
    • Step Two: Decide on how you will recruit and interview interns.
    • Step Three: Advertise your program with local universities, and if applicable, high schools.
    • Step Four: Dedicate a staff person to your interns.
    • Step Five: Find out if your non-profit is eligible for AmeriCorps funding.
    • Step Six: Recognize your interns.


Step One – Commit to paying your interns

If you have the resources to do so, pay your interns. Pay them even if you are a non-profit. There are several reasons to do this, many of them detailed in the “Why Its Important” section. First of all, few internship programs hosted by for-profit organizations will meet the DOL criteria for unpaid internships. Secondly, by paying your intern, you have greater latitude in designing your program. This means that you can readily create a program that benefits your organization and the intern without running afoul of labor laws. Nothing provides real-world training like working in the real world.

Thirdly, getting paid not only helps that individual intern, but offering pay will expand the pool of potential interns that you can select from. Unpaid internships are limited to those individuals who can afford to work for free, and not necessarily the best candidates. Expanding your pool by paying interns means that talented individuals who do not have the means to work for free will now be able to serve and be served by your organization.

This doesn’t mean that you have to pay your interns a lot, or what you would pay a regular employee. A good internship will invest in the intern in other ways, by providing the internship with other kinds of training, networking opportunities, and mentoring. Students recognize this fact.[10]


Step Two – Decide on how you will recruit and interview interns

Determine how you will recruit and interview for internships. The same avenues that you use for hiring employees may not make sense, and your standards for what background the intern needs to have will be different. You might limit your search to certain majors, or by year in school. Think about what qualities you are looking for and how you will assess those qualities in the application and interview process.


Step Three – Advertise your program with local universities, and if applicable, high schools

Establishing a relationship with nearby local universities and colleges can yield a number of benefits. Many universities have their own guidelines for designing internship programs. Often this is to ensure that they meet certain criteria required for awarding course credit for an internship. Additionally, advertising your internship through a university will increase the number of qualified potential applicants who see your posting. Eventually, building a relationship with the university’s career services and relevant departments may lead to fruitful conversations about the relationship between industry needs and curriculum content.


Step Four – Dedicate a staff person to your interns

If your organization is on the larger side, it may make sense to designate an employee to run the internship program. This can help ensure that interns have a consistent experience and that schools that you work with can build a relationship with a specific individual in your organization. Establishing a formal point person may make the most sense for non-profits with a volunteer component, as internship duties can be folded into the responsibilities of your volunteer coordinator.


Step Five – Find out if your non-profit is eligible for AmeriCorps funding

If you are a non-profit, you may decide to align your internship program with AmeriCorps. This will ensure that your interns have funding. The AmeriCorps volunteer program deserves its own write-up, but this federal community service program allows volunteers to work part-time and to serve while enrolled in school. It also provides a living and educational stipend to participants. AmeriCorps service opportunities are usually longer than the average three-month internship.


Step Six – Recognize your interns

Recognize your interns in small and big ways. This could mean everything from taking them out for coffee, to having an awards ceremony at the end of the internship. Coupled with regular mentoring and meetings, this will help make your interns feel valued.


Case Study

The Bob Barker Company is the nation’s largest detention center supplier. They recently earned Green Plus certification, in no small part due to the efforts of their Environmental Interns. Their summer 2013 intern, Hunter Hagy, recently earned his BA in Environmental Science from the University of North Carolina. In his role as Environmental Intern at Bob Barker, he works under the supervision of the VP of Social Responsibility, Nancy Johns, to research and implement a number of environmentally beneficial and cost-saving measures. The internship has allowed him to apply his educational background in a corporate setting and learn about the workings of a national manufacturing and retail operation.

Hagy is a member of the company Green Team, and has been instrumental in calculating and updating the primary and secondary carbon footprint of the company’s operations. Their original analysis revealed that the 200,000 square foot warehouse overwhelming accounted for most of their carbon footprint. This led Bob Barker to install over 1,600 solar panels on its roof. Hagy has also worked to identify sustainability training opportunities for team members in marketing and sourcing, ensure that the company’s green claims comply with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines, and develop a cost effective recycling program. Most recently, Hagy has begun researching the packaging of products, like soap, that the company buys from suppliers. His goal is to determine if the amount packaging can be reduced or otherwise made more environmentally friendly.

Reflecting on his experience with the Bob Barker Company, Hagy says “the most valuable thing I’ve learned is how far-reaching the effects of ‘going green’ can be. Green initiatives create a trickle-down effect that often times benefits areas of your company you may have not previously predicted. It’s rewarding to see and reaffirms the importance of the triple bottom line.”


Resources for More Information

On creating a program: 


On the legal and social impacts of unpaid internships:



Internships can be great experiences for students and employers, but far too often they are used a cheap substitute for low-level workers. Make sure that your internship program provides training and experience that is valuable to students as well as to your organization.


Glossary of Related Terms

Opportunity gap: Sometimes defined as the lack of equal opportunity in a given situation, the “opportunity gap” usually refers to the variations between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds in their access to educational opportunities. The opportunity gap is shaped by a wide variety of factors that often compound one another. It includes everything from the diversity of the vocabulary a child hears at home (related to a parent’s education level), how often a child is read to, their access to pre-school and afterschool activities, and to other enrichment activities. It also includes what schools they are able to attend, the quality of which are often related to nearby property values. Opportunity gap is a term that intentionally mimics the term “achievement gap” but attempts to refocus the conversation away from an exclusive focus on measurements of achievement to understand the impact of developmental and socioeconomic factors in shaping a student’s success or failure in school. 

AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps is a federal program that engages adults in intensive community service work with the goal of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” AmeriCorps provides a stipend, based on the cost of living in the area in which the service is performed, to allow individuals to serve their community. AmeriCorps volunteers are also provided with money towards educational expenses, usually available at the end of the term of service. Most adults aged 18 to 34 are eligible to participate in AmeriCorps. A similar program to fight poverty, VISTA, now operates under the newer AmeriCorps banner. See for more information.

[1] Benefits to businesses largely drawn from: “Benefits of Internships for EMPLOYERS,” Creighton University,, accessed 18 July 2013. If you end up hiring an intern after the internship is over, the chances are that the internship should have been paid (if you are a for-profit business). Otherwise, it looks too much like the internship was an unpaid period of training required for employment, and may violate DOL wage laws.

[2] Criteria are directly quoted from “Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act,” US Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, April 2010,, accessed 18 July 2013.

[3] Courtney Rubin, “Watch Out: That Unpaid Intern Could Cost You,” Inc., 6 April 2010,, accessed 18 July 2013.

[4] Steven Greenhouse, “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not,” New York Times, 2 April 2010,, accessed 18 July 2013. Several organizations publish statistics on income, poverty, and race in the United States.

[5] Ross Eisenbrey, “Unpaid internships: A scourge on the labor market,” Working Economics: The Economic Policy Institute Blog, 7 February 2012,, accessed 18 July 2013.

[6] Ross Perlin, “These Are Not Your Father’s Internships,” New York Times, 6 February 2012,, accessed 18 July 2013.

[7] Student loan rates and debt upon graduation are booming. See: “Student Loan Debt Statistics,” American Student Assistance,, accessed 18 July 2013. This article looks at the drag that these debts have on the economy: Annie Lowrey, “Student Debt Slows Growth as Young Spend Less,” New York Times, 10 May 2013,, accessed 18 July 2013.

[8] Steven Greenhouse, “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not,” New York Times, 2 April 2010,, accessed 18 July 2013. Several organizations publish statistics on income, poverty, and race in the United States. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation provides one example: “Poverty Rate by Race/Ethnicity,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation,, accessed 18 July 2013.

[9] Stephen Greenhouse, “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not.” Greenhouse cites an example in which an unpaid intern brought a sexual harassment complaint that was dismissed because she was not a paid employee.

[10] The federal minimum wage is $7.25 as of this writing. A lucky few interns do get paid wages that put many permanent employees’ salaries to shame, but they tend to be in high-demand industries: Venessa Wong, “The 25 Companies With the Highest-Paying Internships,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 15 February 2013,, accessed 18 July 2013.

Shannon recently completed a master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the religious dimensions of social and environmental justice movements in the twentieth-century American South. Before moving to North Carolina, Shannon...
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