Interning is a major step in the career path of many young people. Indeed, some young people even choose a college or university in a large urban center, like Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, in order to increase their internship opportunities. While some internships can be used for college credit and others provide a small amount of compensation, many more are arranged informally and carried out without college credit or compensation and often with no external checks and balances.

The Ins and Outs of Internship Programs

For this reason, recently, there have been a growing number of reports about the exploitation of young interns. Without dismissing these reports, it is important to bear in mind that for employers, internships can at times also prove costly and worse yet, compromising. With critiques on both sides, the question remains, are internships an effective way to train young workers? If so, what separates effective from ineffective internship programs?

Supporting Interns

Ideally, internships give students and recent college graduates an opportunity to experience the real world of work. In cases where permanent paid opportunities are available, an internship can help a student or recent graduate decide if a particular company or industry is a good fit. Because they are provided with an opportunity to work in a professional environment, students and recent graduates also benefit by gaining vital communication and time-management skills. In addition, an internship is a chance to put one’s knowledge and skills into practice—it is a chance to assess what one has already learned and what they still need to learn before entering the job market. Finally, internships ideally help young people develop professional networks.

In many industries, the internship, including the unpaid internship, is considered a rite of passage, but working for free or nearly free can be problematic. Since only some students can afford to work full-time for free, the internship system tends to privilege young people who already have financial advantages on their side. Moreover, the best internships are often obtained through connections rather than open competitions—a situation that also disadvantages more disadvantaged young people. Once on the job, some interns also report being thrown into workplaces with no training or mentorship and either unchallenged (relegated to picking up coffee for full-time workers) or overly challenged (asked to take on jobs they have yet to receive training for). Finally, in extreme cases, there are reports of interns being asked to work more than 40 hours per week without compensation, benefits or the ability to determine their own schedules. Why do they stay? Typically, they stay because employers promise to reward them with full-time jobs if they can endure the conditions of their internship. The question, in these extreme cases, is what are young workers learning about the world of work, and are these lessons we want emerging workers to take away from their training experiences?

Supporting Internship Programs

While many internship programs are not working, supporting interns and internship programs can be a difficult balancing act. Employers need to identify appropriate interning tasks, create formal and equitable recruitment processes, and train, mentor and assess interns and internship programs on an ongoing basis to ensure they are supporting future workers and their own organizations. But can this be done in a cost effective manner without compromising an organization’s broader mandate?

The truth of the matter is that developing a robust and cost effective internship program is rarely easy. Recruiting, training, mentoring and assessing interns takes time and money. Since most interns only stay for a summer or a semester, it is also difficult to assess the return on investment. After all, when organizations work with interns, the long-term benefits may ultimately be external (the training of future American workers) rather than internal (the training of workers for the organization in question). Even if one accepts that training interns may not have a direct return on investment, there are other costs and risks. On the one hand, one wants to immerse interns into the daily activities of the organization. On the other hand, making interns privy to an organization’s inner workings can at times risk compromising data and even security. Depending on the nature of the workplace, then, the price tag of fully integrating interns, who may or not be fully committed to an organization, can be great. So what can organizations do to create internship programs that are a vital and positive part of the career path?

1. Define roles: Ensure you have clear job descriptions for interns.

2. Train: Despite the cost, it is critical that organizations invest in the training of interns. Bear in mind that the cost of a data or security leak will far outweigh the cost of any training program.

3. Enforce compliance: Treat interns like other workers and ensure they know their rights and responsibilities.

4. Review and provide feedback: Assess your intern’s performance on the job, provide feedback, and when necessarily, be prepared to let an intern go.