Interns can be a great resource for your company because they bring you fresh perspectives, are eager to learn and take on projects, and typically work for cheap, or free. Interns like internships because it’s a great way to make connections and gain some real-world job skills to put on a résumé. Internships are great for the community because they provide students with jobs and opportunities that keep them from moving out of town with their talent.
Not all internships are created equal. And, as eager as interns may be, “training” them to fetch coffee and refill the copy paper for free not only reflects poorly on your organization, but it’s illegal.
In fact, a recent court ruling may be the beginning of the end for unpaid internships. Two interns working on the film Black Swan brought a suit against Fox Searchlight because they had worked as paid employees and not received any education that is required for an unpaid internship to be legal. They won and are owed back pay for all their work.
And interns are paying attention.
Here’s the deal: an intern is not there to get you coffee or refill your copy paper. An intern is there to learn and grow, gain skills that can advance his or her career. That is the value they get for working for you without pay. An intern is not there to do grunt work, fill an entry-level position for free; an intern is there to learn. It’s the law.
The Department of Labor says that for an unpaid internship to be legal, it must include training similar to what would be given in an educational environment. Further, the employer must not get any immediate advantage from the internship, it must be entirely for the benefit of the intern.
Despite the fact that many unpaid internships are illegal, they continue because interns want the experience and don’t speak up. The Black Swan ruling may change that. This media attention will have interns looking more closely at what they are getting for their unpaid time.
Even if they aren’t filing lawsuits, you can bet the ultra-connected Gen Y intern pool will be talking about it on social media, telling others not to work for your company if they have a bad experience. Standards have shifted, and interns know they’ve got some control.
Organizations need to start thinking differently about internships. They are not a great way to get free labor; they are a great way to attract young talent and fresh ideas. And that talent, those ideas, they are valuable to your organization, because guess what, they might just show you how to attract and keep the ephemeral Millennial employee. Providing a great internship experience is the first step in a long and loyal relationship with new talent that you get to vet for free.
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