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.