Several colleges are setting up scholarship programs to help unpaid interns, but there are also things that employers can do to help:
1) If at all possible, pay your interns. I can’t compile a list like this without first suggesting that you pay your interns — minimum wage, a stipend, a scholarship, something, anything.
Offering payment means you will likely attract better qualified, more dedicated interns. A national survey of the Class of 2011 found that students with paid internships spent more time on professional-level work and were more likely to want to return after graduation, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
And not paying your interns a decent wage can also send the message that your company is exploitive and elitist, author and researcher Ross Perlin wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “What Unpaid Internships Say About Your Company.”
“Particularly in a down economy, the appeal of cheap, flexible labor is obvious — and some will assume that is your real goal. Confirm that suspicion in any way and word will get out,” Perlin wrote.
2) Follow federal regulations. If you can’t pay your interns, then make sure that you don’t exploit them. The U.S. Department of Labor has six criteria that unpaid internships must meet to be legal. (Legally, these rules only apply at for-profit companies.)
3) Understand that class credits often cost money. In an effort to ensure an internship is educational, some employers mandate that their unpaid interns receive class credit for their work. Realize that students often have to pay for those academic credits. At several private universities in the D.C. area, the going rate is more than $1,500 per credit.
4) Be flexible with scheduling. Chances are, your unpaid intern is working at least one part-time job at night or on the weekend to earn a little cash for rent and food. Make sure your intern is able to get to that job on time and set your work schedules as far ahead as possible.
5) Help with housing. Usually the most difficult part of moving to a new city is finding a place to live. Short-term housing in D.C. can easily cost more than $1,200 per month, especially if the unit is furnished. (Even the dorms are expensive. George Washington University charges at least $800 per month for a quad room.) Help your interns find free or less-expensive housing by passing along requests for house sitters, asking your staff if they have a spare bedroom or giving advice on which neighborhoods to try.
6) Relax the office dress code. Suits are extremely expensive. So is dry cleaning. While it is okay to require interns to dress professionally, tell them it’s okay to skip the jacket.
7) Feed your interns. Whenever possible, hook your interns up with free food — maybe bagels for breakfast once a week or giving them first dibs on leftovers from luncheons or putting PB&J ingredients in the break room. The director of the College of William and Mary’s Washington office, Adam Anthony, told me about a Washington think tank that feeds its interns lunch every day. “Needless to say, we try to send our students there,” he said.
8) Pay for transportation. Riding the train or public buses at rush-hour can quickly add up to more than $100 per month for your interns. If your office already offers free fare to employees, extend that perk to your interns. If not, give your intern a pre-loaded fare card at the beginning of the summer.
9) Ask questions about placement programs. Last summer I wrote a story about non-profit and for-profit companies that guarantee college students an internship, housing and college courses for a fee. I called a number of companies and government agencies that had no idea their interns had paid thousands of dollars to an outside program to work in their offices. (Meanwhile, officials from two of the companies ended our interviews with an offer to send me a free intern). Realize that the convenience of intern-placement programs is costing someone and usually it’s the college student.
10) Make your internship program worth the time. Make sure that your workplace is your intern’s favorite class. Assign them challenging tasks, not just busy work. Give them constructive feedback, not simple praise. Mentor your interns and ask them about their career goals. Make your internship program truly educational. And, at the same time, use this as an opportunity to groom a possible future employee.