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The Pluses and Minuses of Interns

This is the time of the year when a corporate version of speed dating occurs. Students pursuing various professional degrees begin looking for career relevant opportunities while at the same time many college-aged students are being wooed by companies seeking temporary assistance.  The pursuit and capture of interns and internships kicks into high gear as the semester comes to an end.

A recent article on CBSnews highlighted this phenomena and provided some steps to consider when choosing whether to use interns and how to establish a successful relationship with the intern.  Given that organizations of all sizes can, and do use interns, the appropriate use of interns is something that should be well-th0ught out to maximize the results for both the intern and for the business

Internships should be approached purposefully, or not at all.

Stop and Assess

Interns can have a very powerful impact on organizations.  They often represent a jolt of enthusiasm and energy that revitalizes an organization with the youthful exuberance and new ideas (often culled from the latest research and insights of progressive resesarchers and practitioners on campuses or studied in classes).  However, viewing and treating the intern as free labor can cause problems with Federal agencies that no business wishes to invite.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unpaid interns need to be engaged in learning professional skills. The article includes the following quote,

 ” There isn’t substantive work they can do. Legally and ethically, interns aren’t just summer workers. If they aren’t learning, they aren’t interning — they’re just free labor. “You shouldn’t use them as extra pairs of hands doing administrative work, stocking [shelves], or other hourly-level work unless it is for a short exposure time to understand exactly what the hourly employee actually does,” says management professor John Millikin of Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business.”

Additionally, they are not to be used to replace salaried employees.  However, even putting the legal issues to the side, the decision to hire interns should not be done aitomatically without considering the following:


The hiring company should consider if there are staff members available to mentor and instruct the intern.  The intern is pursuing a learning opportunity in a field of interest.  As such, they are interested in being trained, shown, have demonstrated, etc.  Whether the guidance and oversight is given to one employee or spread across a few, it should be formalized and done with the intern’s interests included – and not just the organization’s needs as the focus. 

Additionally, the space and room needed for the intern to work must be provided.  If there is no work space for the intern, it will be a serious detraction from the ability of the intern to either learn or contribute to the company.  So, depending on the requirements of the internship, there should be phones, desks, computers, or other equipment available for the intern.  Having the intern take the office or desk of whichever employee is out of the office that day in a nomadic journey each day is not conducive to a successful internship.


While it may be tempting to view the intern as another resource to leverage that has little (if any) cost, before you hire an intern, think about what they will do and how you will help structure the experience as a learning opportunity. Short of that, the article points out that, “Failing to think before hiring can potentially leave you open to lawsuits like the ones currently plaguing Charlie Rose and media company Hearst. Even if you don’t face legal problems, trying to mentor an intern without the right resources can be a time and money drain on your organization that benefits no one.”

David Zahn