The Myth of the Unpaid Intern

December 7, 2023by Leslie Crouch

So, you’re thinking about bringing on interns? That’s great! Interns can inject some fresh energy and ideas into your startup. But there’s a lot to unpack about the intern game, especially around the myth of the ‘unpaid intern.’ Google “unpaid internship,” and most websites that pop up are law firms – ready to sue companies violating the labor law, including startups.

The True Picture of Unpaid Internships
First off, let’s bust a myth: the idea of the unpaid intern. Legally speaking (and yes, there are laws about this!), an internship in the U.S. has to be more about learning than working. That means if you’re having an intern do work that you’d otherwise pay someone else to do, you gotta pay them too.

When Could Unpaid Work?
Some Universities require internships as part of their programs and even give credits for intern programs, but these are usually paid. Unpaid internships are like unicorns – rare and specific. They might work in some cases, like for social media or gaming ‘street teams’ on campuses. But even then, think hard: Does your ideal customer hang out on college campuses? If yes, this might be a go. But remember, mentoring and managing interns isn’t a walk in the park. It takes time and effort, which, in startup land, translates to cost.

The Real Cost of Internship Programs
Here’s the kicker: while you might not be paying wages, running an internship program isn’t free. There’s a whole lot of mentoring, training, and managing that goes into it. And if you’re a lean startup, are  the time resources going into interns need to be worth it?

6 Questions to Consider: 

1. Do you have the time and resources to train and mentor an intern?
Trust me, interns need guidance, and that’s on you.

2. What kind of tasks will the intern be doing?
It should be meaningful, educational stuff – not just coffee runs.

3. Can your team handle an intern?
Think about whether your team has the bandwidth to onboard someone new.

4. What’s the end goal of the internship?
Are you looking to groom a future employee, or just need some extra hands?

5. Paid or unpaid?
Odds are, you’ll need to pay them. And if you’re thinking unpaid, double-check those legal requirements.

6. What’s your intern onboarding plan?
You’ll need a solid plan to get them up to speed with how your startup functions. Throwing their feet to the fire won’t work – they need major hand-holding.

About Paying Interns and Training Costs
Most interns will be paid. There, I said it. And rightly so! If they’re contributing to your startup’s success, compensating them is only fair.

An intern brings coffee

Plus, there’s the whole mentoring and training part. If your startup is super tight on budget and manpower, you might want to think twice before jumping on the intern bandwagon.

Cool Intern Tasks: Training AI LLMs
Here’s something cool: interns can be super helpful with AI projects, like training Large Language Models (LLMs). It’s cutting-edge stuff and a fantastic learning opportunity. But (and it’s a big but), they need to be PAID and trained properly for this kind of work. It’s complex, requires a specific skill set, and is definitely not for the uninitiated.

Wrapping It Up: The Internship Takeaway
So, what’s the takeaway here? Interns can be awesome for your startup. They bring new ideas, and energy, and can even contribute to high-tech projects. But most of the time, they need to be paid, and you need to invest time in training and mentoring them.

Have questions on hiring interns? Ravix Group supports startups with HR strategy, and can guide you through the process. Contact us for a free consult:

Leslie Crouch

Leslie Crouch, a seasoned HR professional at Ravix Group, Inc. since 2014, specializes in strategic human resources for startups and mid-sized companies. With expertise spanning software, biotechnology, and SAAS services, Leslie has become a linchpin in aligning HR strategies with the growth needs of diverse clients. At Ravix Group, Leslie adeptly ensures compliance with labor laws, manages payroll, employee benefits, and oversees the entire employee lifecycle, including onboarding and complex offboarding processes. Prior to joining Ravix Group, Leslie honed her skills in contingent workforce compliance as an HR Services Manager at ICon Professional Services LLC. Her robust experience also includes a stint as an independent consultant, providing comprehensive HR services, and earlier roles at Cardica, Inc., and KPMG LLP. Leslie’s expertise in performance management, employee relations, and compensation analysis is integral to her approach, focusing on developing HR frameworks that foster operational excellence in innovative startup environments.
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