Make your intern’s summer a successful experience

By: Judy Kneiszel

Publication: Employee Relations Management Today

Date Posted: 05/28/2020

Interns have been the brunt of jokes in sitcoms and movies for years.

To some people, the word “intern” denotes a baby-faced, coffee-fetching, abuse-taking college student. But savvy employers view internships as a necessary element of recruiting and staffing. These organizations look for capable, driven interns who may have long-term interest in the company.

Businesses have long appreciated the minimal costs associated with hiring interns, since most do not receive benefits and are paid less than regular employees (or are not paid at all, if certain conditions are met). Often companies don’t realize that while the hourly cost of interns may be small, their contributions to the company don’t have to be.

Keep it real for interns

Instead of assigning menial tasks to interns and keeping them separate from the “real” employees, employers should give them actual work, complete with challenges and opportunities for problem solving.

When interns aren’t gaining practical experience or an understanding of a company’s inner workings, they aren’t likely to remain interested in a long-term career. The cost of extra time spent with an intern often will be recouped if he or she makes a long-term commitment to the company.

Key to remember: Regular employees crave a sense of belonging and appreciation, as well as opportunities to grow and be challenged daily. Interns are no different. Treating them like regular employees gives them a true taste of a career with the company. Working with promising interns could be an investment in your company’s future.

Interns: To pay or not to pay?

It’s noble to want to help a college student. Employers may want to help coach and train the student by having him or her work for the company. The student benefits from on-the-job learning. Must he or she be paid at least minimum wage also?

It depends. An intern isn’t free labor, even if the intern is learning while he or she is working. A seven-factor Department of Labor (DOL) test should be used to determine who is the “primary beneficiary” of an internship, which dictates whether or not the intern must be paid.


The intern and the employer clearly understand that the intern will not be paid. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee — while no such promise suggests that the intern is not.


The internship provides training that would be similar to what he or she would receive in an educational environment.


The internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.


The internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.


The internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.


The intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees, while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.


The intern and the employer understand that the intern is not entitled to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

For years, the DOL had a different, six-factor test for interns. In that test, if any of the six factors were untrue, the internship would need to be paid. However, under the current seven-factor “primary beneficiary” test, employers must weigh all of the factors together to determine who is the primary beneficiary of the intern’s work.

If the primary beneficiary is the intern, the individual need not be paid, but if it’s the employer, then the intern must be paid. Note that not all the factors must point in the same direction for an intern to be entitled to pay.

About the author
Judy Kneiszel - Human Resources Editor

Judy is an Associate Editor on the Human Resources Publishing Team and she specializes in issues such as recruiting and hiring, onboarding and training, employee communication and discipline, managing problems, team building, inclusion, employee retention, and labor relations

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