What Are Interns and Internships?

Intern working
•••  Sascha Schuermann / Getty Images

Internships are temporary jobs that provide real-time work experience, often for college students. Older adults who are changing career fields or obtaining degrees may also become interns.

Interns learn how to be employees in a particular field and gain work experience to list on their resume when they begin to search for a job. Some internships are required for certain degrees, and they also afford interns the opportunity to experience a particular line of work before they've fully committed to a career path.

Benefits to Interns

The most important benefit to interns is the experience that can be gained. While good grades are important for college students, the most important thing that employers want to see in entry-level job candidates is that they have some level of experience outside of the classroom. On most any field, even 4.0 students will be at a disadvantage if they can't show employers that they have done relevant work in a real-world setting.

Completing an internship also may be part of a degree requirement. When that is the case, the colleges offering the degree typically have programs in place to match students with employers willing to hire a certain number of interns for a semester or other defined time period.

Another benefit to interns is the networking they are able to do during an internship. By working in a professional setting, they are able to connect with those in their own office and with clients they may encounter, depending on the type of work they do. When it's time to start looking for a full-time job, these connections can be as valuable as the experience gained during the internship. 

Benefits to Employers

An efficient internship program can provide a company with a relatively inexpensive source of labor for many basic tasks. When employers treat an internship program as an investment in recruitment and training and are willing to give interns an opportunity to work with experienced professionals, they frequently will get valuable production from the students or others in the program.

While interns should not be expected to handle a lot of responsibility, they can provide valuable support and assistance to full-time employees willing to take on interns. The best interns then can be targeted by the company down the road for recruitment for full-time positions after they graduate.

Payment

Internships can be paid or unpaid positions, depending on the circumstances.

In most situations, interns should be paid by the employer. Employers do obtain benefit from the time and work invested by their interns, but unpaid internships are common. This frequently is the case if the internship counts for academic credit for a particular degree for graduation.

As of 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor provided a seven-point test to determine if an internship could be unpaid. Each of the seven points effectively falls into one of two categories: expectation of pay or educational benefits. For an internship to qualify as unpaid, both the employer and the intern must understand upfront that there is no expectation of pay. Regarding education, for the internship to be unpaid, there must be a clear connection between the responsibilities of the internship and an educational program in which the intern is taking part.