Do I Have to Pay Interns? (You Should.)

This is the fourth installment in a five part series about how to cultivate excellent interns.

Do I have to pay interns?

The payment of interns is an ongoing debate and a contested issue.  There are many types of internships, with different genres and sizes of companies with varying degrees of hands-on, real world experience.  The variance makes it difficult give a simple answer to this question.  Legally, the government states what determines whether the interns must be paid wages.

All companies should respond, “YES! Pay them! Interns are awesome!”  But that’s not always an option.  Are you a small company or a bootstrapping startup?  Are finances keeping the office on a tight budget yet there is much to be done, many hats to wear, a multitude of areas to learn in, and a busy but personable environment?

I’m biased on this topic. The programs I’ve developed and managed have been while working with startups.  Whether an internship is paid, unpaid, or stipend based, a program should include all of the following:

  • Hands on work that interests and stimulates the intern
  • An office space that’s not physically isolated
  • Integration of interns with team lunches, active participation in meetings to learn and observe, and encouragement to freely contribute ideas, thoughts, and suggestions
  • A relaxed environment where they feel comfortable talk to other employees
  • An effort to make sure interns feel valuable to the company while also finding worth in their experiences
  • End of program evaluations reviewing the outcomes of their work, the skills they demonstrated and strengthened, and how they enhanced the work of the organization

Does a company have to pay interns?  No.  Should a company pay interns?  Heck yes.  Anyone contributing to your company should be fairly compensated in some capacity.  With a well run internship program, Interns help to strengthen skills of current employees and add positively to company culture. 

The fifth installment of “5 Questions to Cultivate Excellent Interns” will outline how and what to look for in interns to ensure they’ll contribute to your company in a productive and engaging manner.