Interns: Do you need to pay them or not?

Interns: Do you need to pay them or not?

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Paying interns is a relatively new concept. Years ago, internships were more commonly known as apprenticeships and potential candidates considered it an honor to be chosen to learn and work alongside seasoned experts. At the end of the experience, they would be virtually guaranteed to have the skills needed to build a career.

One espresso, please…

Today, the internship is significantly more common, but the experience isn’t as predictable. We’ve all heard the horror stories about interns who do little more than pick up and deliver coffee for three months at a time.

While busy work needs to be completed, and interns might seem like the more affordable way to do so, there could be consequences. As internships become more common, new rules are being established to prevent college kids looking for class credit from becoming a source of free labor and glorified coffee deliverers.

Should you pay your interns?

Standards have developed under the Fair Labor Standards Act to determine if a role has actual value for the intern or if it serves to fill a current employee position with less expensive (or free) labor. This is the “primary beneficiary test,” used to make internships more valuable for the intern while still providing benefit to the employer.

The Criteria

Seven questions asked by the test help determine who receives the primary benefit of the internship. Answer these questions to see if your internship program offers learning opportunities or is being used to fill a currently vacant job from a former paid employee:

  • Is there an existing expectation for the intern to be paid?
  • Does the internship provide training that is similar or relevant to their field of study?
  • Do they receive academic credit for the internship?
  • Does the internship work around the student’s class and semester schedule?
  • Is there a significant educational benefit to the intern?
  • Was the intern’s work previously done by an employee who hasn’t been replaced?
  • Was there an agreement that the internship won’t guarantee further employment?

So, should I pay my interns?

Though legal requirements exist when it comes to paying interns, a moral question should also be answered. Is the intern doing work you would pay someone for? As internships become a required part of degree programs, students are sacrificing day jobs, many of which help support them through college, to help your organization. Paying them for their time is the right thing to do.


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