Hiring Summer Interns: Worth the Risk?

Hiring Summer Interns: Worth the Risk?

by on 4 Jun, 2019

As summer approaches, many college students find themselves looking for summer internships as a way to gain valuable experience in the workplace and beyond the classroom environment. Summer internships have always been a staple for many in the college experience, and they are a great way for students to dip their toes in the water of the professional world before entering it fully as graduates. Internships give students the opportunity to put what they’ve learned in the classroom to the test, as well as to network, to acclimate to the 9 to 5 office life and schedule, and to get a taste of what they like and don’t like about a particular role or industry.

Interns, in an ideal world, are also very beneficial to employers. Hiring interns is a great way to improve productivity in the workplace, establish an employer brand on college campuses, and perhaps most importantly, develop a strong talent pipeline.

While hiring interns can be a great step for employers to take, doing so does bring a fair degree of risk into the equation. There are rules and regulations governing internship programs, and they vary from state to state. Perhaps the most pressing issue employers face when it comes to hiring interns is deciding whether or not to pay them. Employers that are strapped for cash may be hesitant to pay interns, but not doing so could lead to some sticky compliance issues that end up being more costly than simply choosing to pay the intern up front.

Here are some tips for developing a successful, compliant internship program.

Know the Law on Unpaid Interns

The U.S. Department of Labor dictates how an employer can hire an intern without pay, and they have developed a primary beneficiary test that determines whether interns are considered “employees”, and consequently, whether or not they must be paid. The fact sheet lists seven factors that make up the test, which are as follows:

  • The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.

  • The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.

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

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

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

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

  • The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

This test can be tricky to navigate, and different requirements may exist under varying state and local laws. The best approach is to pay interns if you can afford to, and if you cannot, to consider whether having an internship program is truly going to benefit your business. Paying interns can help mitigate potential legal risk, while also making interns feel valued for their work and motivated to perform well.

Take Hiring and Onboarding Seriously

While hiring interns may seem more trivial than hiring full-time employees, employers should still put careful thought into hiring and onboarding interns. This includes developing a thoughtful job description and screening process. If possible, employers should connect with a local college or university to establish a connection and find potential talent.

Once an intern is hired and ready to start, be sure to treat their introduction to the workplace as you would any other employee. Give them a warm welcome, send out a company-wide email introducing them, and give them a single point of contact that they can refer to throughout the summer with questions and concerns.

Set Goals and Monitor Progress

Interns will not appreciate spending the majority of the summer fetching coffee or making copies. Employers should develop a thorough plan for what the intern will be working on throughout the summer, even breaking it down into weekly projects and tasks.

The intern’s direct manager should work with the intern to develop SMART goals, which are:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable

  • Relevant

  • Time-bound

In addition to setting goals, employers should provide plenty of feedback to interns, as this serves as a valuable opportunity for interns to improve and really take a lot away from the internship experience.


In conclusion, internship programs, when done right, are mutually beneficial to interns and employers alike, but employers carry a degree of risk when they decide to hire interns. Employers should be very clear on the laws surrounding internship programs, especially when making big decisions such as whether or not to pay the interns. During the development of an internship program, some questions or concerns may arise that employers are not sure how to answer themselves. In these scenarios, it is a good idea to consult with outside help.


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Disclaimer: this article does not represent expert advice and is provided for informational purposes. Please get in touch if you would like expert HR advice.

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