Should You Use Unpaid Interns?

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Interns can be a great way to discover new talent while bringing a fresh perspective to your business, but make sure you follow some basic guidelines or you could wind up in trouble.

Small business owners often turn to unpaid interns for the kinds of tasks they expect young people to handle well, such as social media and website development, but recent lawsuits make it advisable that you only recruit unpaid workers if you’re offering the kind of real career development that students would receive at a college, university or vocational school, advises Joe Taylor Jr. at Small Business Computing.

So don’t think about your internship program as a source of cheap labor, but as an opportunity to give back to your community and your industry. While your intern’s tasks may include some entry-level work assignments, much of his or her time should be spent working closely with and learning from experienced staff. The only benefit to you should be a new perspective on your business.

Also, internships shouldn’t be your only source of labor. Regulators have cracked down on employers who use unpaid internship programs to winnow down a large pool of candidates to a single paid position. There’s no law that says you can’t hire a former intern; in fact, internships help you predict how a candidate will perform once they’re on the job. But it can’t be your only means of hiring, and you can’t replace employees with interns.

In most cases, your interns should use their experience to earn course credit from their college or university. Most schools assign an internship advisor to oversee each student’s work experience. So if you go the unpaid route, set a clear work schedule and other expectations, and use your interns’ advisor as a resource to make sure you’re offering a fair, enjoyable and legal work experience.

If you’re hoping to gain some business benefit from the intern and the restrictions on unpaid interns don’t appeal to you, consider paying at least minimum wage. It’s a lot cheaper than hiring a lawyer.

Adapted from Recruit Interns Without Breaking the Law by Joe Taylor Jr. at Small Business Computing.


Unpaid internships exclude opportunities for anyone who cannot afford to have the means to support it. This promotes a serious level of class and racial discrimination. Moreover, women are more likely to be found in these positions than men. Do we really want the future of our workforce excluding not only diversity of people, but diversity of thought? 

Maricela_G 1 Like

To respond to the other comments, unpaid internships CAN be useful yes--given the state of the economy and the limited opportunities that are out there for students and young adults. However, the entire nature of the unpaid internship is in effect exploitative and convinces them that pay is not important. Well, the closer I get to graduation, the closer I realize that pay is very important. And to say that it isn't is naive. Also, unpaid internships, especially those without stipends for transportation and food, indirectly result in the intern having to pay for the opportunity of the internship. No. This is an unfair burden to place on those who don't even know any better--and don't have the opportunity to progress in the industry that they are interested in, since you need internships to do that. 

Moreover, one HAS to participate in the internship game, and when I mean one I include myself, since everyone else is. It's a vicious cycle, and it's scary to think how this will affect the near future when those of "intern age" are in their 40s-50s. Personally, I see greater income inequality, which is probably the worst problem to face modern America.


Hi Paul,  

This is the second time I've seen this subject today so I thought that I would offer my perspective. I have a small agency in California. I have been approached by students for internships on various occasions. I started out paying my interns. Unfortunately this often resulted in getting a student who approached the job as an entitlement. To me, it seemed like they saw this as nothing more than a part-time low-level job to them and I felt that I spent more time developing them than they were giving to me in return. I can't say why this is true---it was just my experience.

Recently I have only responded to interns who have sought out my company and requested an opportunity. We interview. I tell them up-front that this is an unpaid internship.  My last 3 interns have been enthusiastic about the opportunity and have been a dream to work with.

Some inquiries have been from France and in that case we are not supposed to provide compensation---only opportunity.  I often hesitate because I don't have time to train someone so they need to be somewhat self-sufficient and willing to learn and take direction. My last intern from France did not read English very well so we had some interesting interchanges, but we muddled through and figured things out. She learned how to create a brand style guide for a high tech company, expertise that she would never have learned in school. If they are truly interested in learning and contributing it can be a good situation for both parties.

I feel good about what I can offer a student because I know that they are NOT getting this level of experience in their classroom. What they can get in working with us is the opportunity to apply the theories and concepts they learn in a classroom setting to real world situations. It will make them a much better job applicant once they are looking for a permanent job. Conversely, I am only interested in full time employees that have interned somewhere and have something to show for their time.

omar 1 Like

During the summer I was never really able to take on an unpaid internship, because my parents were only able to support me to a certain extent. However, my best experience was an unpaid position during the school year. After that one semester, I was more qualified for paid positions, and benefitted from my previous experience greatly. I think what is important is to make sure that the unpaid position will provide you with a good learning experience, and you can develop some important skills.

After graduating, I actually got a job with a company that helps students find internships (InternMatch), and have heard from a lot of students that had an excellent experience with their unpaid internships. However, we make sure students know how to sniff out bad internships and more importantly, we have employers look at our guides about how to set up an internship program :

Conclusion: unpaid can be really useful.

padgettsemi 2 Like

Replacing employees with unpaid interns will destroy workplace morale immediately and irrevocably.