Our View: Internships Can Be Double-Edged Swords

Ali Bilden Camps northforce
NORTHFORCE Program Manager Ali Bilden Camps

Internship season is in full swing! The Northland is home to many excellent internship programs. Every year, employers across northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin rely on these entry-level positions to keep operations running smooth. 

Likewise, students snap up these opportunities to complement their studies with real-world experience. Best case scenario, an internship leads to a job offer. 

In this sense, internships are a viable pathway to lasting employment. However, they’re also a gray area, legally. 

The Department of Labor has a flexible set of guidelines to determine whether a position should be considered an internship or an employee role. These requirements touch on factors like compensation, resemblance to in-class instruction, and similarity to paid positions.

Does any given internship hold up under close examination of this criteria? It’s not always an easy question to answer — especially if the internship is unpaid. 

We strongly advocate for employers to pay interns a fair wage. At the same time, we acknowledge that internships create tension within a competitive job market. Should some interns technically be employees with access to the legal protections that come along with paid employment? Definitely. And if you’re a candidate seeking one of these positions — only to find you’re overqualified for low-paying internships that offer no benefits — you have a fair argument.

In view of these realities, we share the following best practices for employers that host internships or are considering starting an internship program: 

1. Check the Department of Labor’s legal definition and put your internship to the test. Is it legit?

2. Take the time to develop an internship program. Clearly communicate expectations and tie an internship to measurable goals. A well-designed program will supply talent to your company for years to come.

3. Work with a human resource expert to clarify the fine line between employees and interns and develop each internship. If possible, go the extra mile and work directly with the appropriate contact at a student’s school to make sure the role meets the college’s definition of an internship experience. 

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce recently received a $100,000 grant through the Minnesota Department of Labor’s Youth Skills Training Program to help support paid internships. The funding is out there — we strongly encourage other chambers and organizations in our area to seek it out!

Employers can also team with programs like SciTech, which gives small Minnesota employers a 50% match on intern wages up to $2,500 for STEM college students. Another example is the TechStart program in Wisconsin, a collaboration between Visions Northwest and Momentum West designed to increase the number of internships and apprenticeships in northwest Wisconsin through one-to-one networking support.

Northland employers can post internships for free on northforce.org, which is also a community resource for students seeking local internships and entry-level job openings. Happy internship season!

Ali Bilden Camps is a Northspan consultant and the NORTHFORCE program manager. A nonprofit consulting firm, Northspan powers the region’s NORTHFORCE program.

A version of this op ed appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Aug. 2, 2022. You can view it here.

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