How to hire unpaid interns and ensure mutual value

May 9, 2024
6 mins
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Even though the majority of today’s internship programs are paid, nearly 45% of internships in the United States are unpaid. These opportunities can provide an invaluable experience for interns and employers alike. While there is some debate about the ethical concerns surrounding unpaid internships, they can provide substantial educational value when structured correctly. 

Businesses facing urgent project needs can greatly benefit from these arrangements, especially when they utilize platforms like Riipen to ensure a mutually beneficial experience. 

In this article, we'll explore ethical ways of hiring unpaid interns for last-minute projects. We'll focus on creating opportunities that prioritize the intern's learning and development while also addressing your company’s immediate needs.


Why consider interns for your last-minute projects

When you've got a pressing deadline or your project faces demands you hadn't originally planned on, it's easy to find yourself in a bind. We've all been there. You need to fill the gaps, but you don't want to go through the lengthy hiring process. That's where student interns can make a big difference. 

These interns bring fresh energy and innovative ideas right when you need them the most. They're eager to apply their learning in real-world settings, making them perfect for tackling urgent tasks with enthusiasm and a new perspective.

By hiring interns for these last-minute projects, your business:

  • Gets the immediate help you need.
  • Stays on track without compromise.

Interns get:

  • A meaningful, hands-on experience that can bolster their resume.
  • A realistic preview of working within your industry.
  • A chance to gain college credit.

It's a win-win. But sometimes, the budget is already stretched to its limits. This is where hiring unpaid interns comes into play. They offer a solution where interns can still gain significant educational benefits and insights into their future careers without additional financial strain on your resources. However, it's crucial to ensure that the internship experience is structured to prioritize the intern's learning and development to maintain ethical standards and mutual benefit.

The ethical considerations of unpaid internships

Unpaid internships often come under scrutiny due to ethical concerns regarding compensation and fairness—especially in light of employment laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in the United States. While we won’t delve into legal specifics, it's essential to acknowledge these frameworks when designing your internship program to ensure they are both ethical and lawful.

For an unpaid internship program to be considered ethical, the primary beneficiary must be the intern, and the unpaid intern must not displace regular employees. This means the internship program should be structured much like an educational course, with clear learning objectives, mentorship, and regular feedback. 

These unpaid internship opportunities should enhance an intern’s formal education program by providing practical skills and insights that are directly applicable to their academic or career aspirations.

Additionally, a truly ethical unpaid internship program offers flexibility in scheduling to accommodate an intern’s academic commitments and other responsibilities. You should also recognize the value of the work the unpaid intern does by offering different forms of compensation, like networking opportunities, job offers post-internship, and letters of recommendation.

Addressing these ethical considerations head-on not only ensures compliance with moral standards but also ensures your organization's reputation isn’t called into question, attracting more dedicated and talented individuals who are eager to contribute and grow professionally.

Best practices for hiring unpaid interns

Unpaid internship programs can provide valuable experience for students and recent graduates, but employers must follow best practices to ensure they are legal and beneficial for the intern.

Start by identifying your needs and project scope

Before recruiting an unpaid intern, it's crucial to engage in thorough planning and have a clear definition of the project. Identify and decide on the specific tasks and responsibilities expected of the intern. This preparation ensures that the project aligns well with the intern's educational goals and skill sets, providing a structured experience that benefits both the intern and your organization. 

Make sure your project provides value for unpaid interns

It's important that unpaid internships focus on the intern's education and career development. Employers should offer meaningful projects that challenge interns, involve them in significant tasks, and contribute to their skill development—not just in their specific field but also in interpersonal skills like teamwork and communication. Additionally, you need to ensure that your organization provides continuous feedback and mentorship.

Explore channels for engaging unpaid interns

There are multiple channels through which businesses can connect with potential unpaid interns. Traditional methods include:

  • Reaching out to university career services.
  • Posting on online job boards.
  • Participating in industry-specific forums.
  • Posting your internship opportunities on social media. 

While each of these avenues can help tap into a pool of eager students, one of the best ways to streamline this process and ensure a match that benefits both parties is to use Riipen. 

As the largest online work-based learning marketplace, Riipen stands out by facilitating connections between businesses and post-secondary institutions, ensuring that each internship opportunity is designed to be mutually beneficial and ethically sound.

Maximizing mutual value for unpaid interns with Riipen

Riipen is a pioneering work-integrated learning platform that expertly facilitates ethical unpaid internships by ensuring that the project-based work aligns with academic credit. By ensuring that projects align with academic outcomes and integrate seamlessly into the student’s curriculum, Riipen maintains a firm commitment to the educational value of internships. 

The platform also offers a robust ecosystem for remote, project-based internships that provide substantial benefits for both students and employers.

Students gain practical experience and build their portfolios through meaningful projects that are aligned with their academic studies while earning course credit. Plus, they have the flexibility to participate in internship programs that are outside of their geographical locations. 

Employers can significantly expand their talent pool and connect with a diverse array of interns from various geographical locations, backgrounds, and educational institutions. This setup also allows businesses to access fresh perspectives and specialized skills from students to address specific business challenges.

And Riipen further simplifies the process of setting up an internship program by providing pre-built project templates and powerful smart-matching technology that matches employers’ project needs with the right academic programs and students.

Why Riipen stands out for last-minute projects

Whether you’re tackling a sudden surge in work, filling in for unexpected resource gaps, or simply needing fresh ideas swiftly, Riipen makes it easier to navigate these challenges effectively. With its streamlined matching process and comprehensive project management tools, the platform makes it easy for businesses to find right student talent, ensuring that urgent needs are met without sacrificing project quality or timelines.

Here’s what businesses have access to: 

  • Rapid matchmaking and onboarding.
  • Flexible, remote collaboration.
  • A suite of project management tools to streamline the coordination and oversight of student projects.
  • Customizable project templates that accelerate the process of defining and launching a project.
  • Built-in communication and feedback tools that facilitate efficient, asynchronous collaboration on a single platform.


Jump ahead:

Key takeaways 

  • Unpaid internships can swiftly fill skill gaps for urgent projects, bypassing the lengthy processes associated with traditional hiring, making them an ideal solution for businesses needing immediate help.
  • A properly designed unpaid internship program, in compliance with labor laws, prioritizes the educational value for the intern and does not replace paid employees. 
  • Utilizing Riipen’s platform, businesses can easily find and engage with interns whose educational goals align with their project needs.

Whether you want to start up a paid internship program or search for unpaid interns, book a free demo with Riipen today to leverage these benefits fully. 

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