The question isn’t whether you should pay your interns or not, but whether the internship you’re offering is worth something to them the way it is to you. They say that time is equal to money, but I think that a whole lot of other things can be too.
I’ve interned at a bunch of different places - some paid me, and some didn’t. And honestly, yes, the stipend is somewhat reflective of a good experience.
It means that the place you’re at wants to show its value for your effort.
It means that the internship is treated somewhat like a job - they obviously trust you to be capable of earning a certain amount.
It means that whether or not you end up enjoying your time at the office, you’ll get something out of it for the work you put in.
That’s all great - but it’s worth remembering that we don’t spend months looking for an internship only to decide that the pay is what makes it perfect. We look at places we want to be at. We want to develop certain skills, cultures and notches in our belt, and pay or no pay, we can never deny ourselves a chance to learn from a place that can provide us with each and every one of those things.
So if you’re a company that can’t afford to pay its interns, but one that is very enthusiastic about having them, I’ve got a couple of ideas on how you could go about making the arrangement a good one.
- Make the skills you offer more obvious: This one comes first because it’s something you should be doing even if you provide pay. If I’m being put to any task, be it typing up a boring report or assisting on large amounts of research, I’d like to know exactly what scenarios it is preparing me for in my future employment, or even how it may help me in just that moment. So make sure that all your full-time employees themselves are trained in explaining the utility of each micro and macro task. This can also help you figure out if you’re truly assigning useful work to your interns or not.
- Guidance on cover letters, resumes and interviews: Again, this is something that goes without saying - all places of work should commit themselves to teaching professionalism in every way. For free. Learning how to tinker with cover letters, adapt resumes and ace interviews is not something we should wait to do when we’re in our final year of college. It’s something that any workplace should strive to teach its employees. Instead of making me go through workshops, courses and hours of my time scrolling through the web, if my internships could teach me to do these things, I’d see far more value in them.
- Help with college work: Yes, internships are usually carried out in the summer or winter, when we’re off from college and would like to keep it that way. Regardless, I can think of ways that professionals could help interns: for one, teach us how to make a presentation. Our grades can sometimes depend on giving a great one. Or show us how to time-manage and create efficient schedules. Maybe help us out with some writing advice! Get creative with the skills you already hire for, and make those into skills you can teach us, too.
- Free lunches, paid nights out, or a discount on your own service: This one’s easy and has been practiced for long. By providing perks like a nice lunch for all your interns once in a while, or perhaps a night out with the top-level leadership so everyone can be a little more friendly with one another, you create situations where connections, networking and human relationships can be built. This is a perk that even paid work doesn’t and shouldn’t ever replace. Use opportunities of socialisation to your advantage. Another method that always helps is the one that benefits your company and also your intern - if it's possible to provide deals and discounts on your service, then let your interns have an exclusive right to one!
- Give interns more leadership and ownership: You have in your hands a chance to make responsible, confident and competent people out of “entry-level” interns. Show them that that's what's at stake here. Being paid is great, but it’s nothing compared to the fulfilment you can get from feeling successful at a long-term, hard-worked project. Think of ways to allow interns to create some kind of real impact, be it a means to an actual end for the company, or perhaps a simulation of it. Either way, you inspire a feeling of completion and professional stamina in the intern who didn’t see it coming.
If it isn’t abundantly clear, paying your interns isn’t as hard as you think. We’re hungry for a chance to excel at our internships, but far more in ways that are educational, and not financial.
It’s totally possible to make internships a mutually-valuable exercise, without money needing to change hands. Although, that’s always a nice touch!