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Dec 2, 2013

Defining the employment deal for interns

New SHRM research suggests unpaid internships not that prevalent

By Claudine Kapel

The subject of unpaid interns is garnering a lot of media attention, raising questions about how organizations use interns in general.

A new survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found unpaid interns aren’t that common, at least not among the 359 organizations randomly selected from SHRM’s membership base.

Nearly two-thirds of the survey respondents indicated they hired or planned to hire at least one intern in 2013, with the majority (80 per cent) hiring between one and 10 interns. Compared with 2012, 34 per cent reported offering a greater number of internships, with 58 per cent offering about the same number, and eight per cent offering fewer intern positions.

The majority of respondents who reported utilizing interns indicated they offer paid internships, with about three-quarters paying an hourly wage above the minimum wage. The top considerations when setting an intern’s compensation included:

  • The department in which the intern is working (48 per cent).
  • The intern’s level of education (44 per cent).
  • The entry-level wage for relevant work in the organization (39 per cent).

Of the survey participants who reported hiring interns, only 18 per cent indicated they don’t offer any full-time positions to interns after the internship has ended. In contrast, some 48 per cent of respondents utilizing interns indicated they offer full-time positions to between one per cent and 24 per cent of their interns.

Nearly all respondents who utilize interns (93 per cent) indicated they count internships as relevant work experience and 76 per cent indicated they serve as references for their interns.

The survey also examined the types of internships offered by organizations in 2013. It found the majority (89 per cent) of organizations with such programs offered internships to undergraduate students. One-half offered internships to graduate students and 17 per cent offered such positions to high school students.

Summer internships were the most common for high school students (74 per cent) and undergraduate students (58 per cent), although one-half of internships for graduate students take place year round or do not have a specific time period.

Organizations reported arranging a variety of activities specifically for their interns, including mentoring meetings (42 per cent), joint group projects for interns (30 per cent) and a presentation/showcase of interns’ work (21 per cent).

Benefits offered to interns included:

  • On-site parking (48 per cent).
  • Paid holidays (18 per cent).
  • Housing assistance or temporary housing (seven per cent).
  • A paid time off plan, defined as sick days, vacation days and/or personal leave (six per cent).
  • Health insurance benefits (five per cent).

Survey respondents who did not hire interns in 2013 cited a lack of work for an intern (46 per cent) and a lack of budget (35 per cent) as the top reasons for not doing so.

SHRM notes it has conducted other research that found “many companies are struggling to find properly skilled workers to fill their open positions.” It suggests internship programs “offer an opportunity to train young workers on site and create a pipeline of talent.” SHRM also notes its broader research indicates four-fifths of organizations have offered a full-time position to an intern after the completion of the internship.

Regardless of how many interns an organization may engage, the SHRM survey results underscore it is possible to design a workable employment proposition that delivers value to both the intern and the organization.

Although unpaid internships still exist, even among the SHRM survey participants, the research highlights that organizations can implement successful internship programs without having to engage unpaid talent.

Claudine Kapel is principal of Kapel and Associates Inc., a Toronto-based human resources and communications consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of compensation and total rewards programs. For more information, visit

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