Youth & Under 30s - Interns - employee or volunteer?

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Interns - employee or volunteer?

Internships are becoming an increasingly popular way for people to gain experience in a highly competitive job market. However is an intern classified as an unpaid volunteer or an employee? It's important to make the right choice.

The concept of involving Interns is becoming more and more popular across the voluntary, public and private sectors. Interns can provide new ideas and enthusiasm in your organisation whilst providing a valuable opportunity for someone to gain experience for their career. However there has been a variety of views and practices in terms of their involvement, not least whether they are paid or unpaid. For this reason Volunteer Now felt it was important to take time to raise some of the main issues.

There is no legal definition of an intern however on the whole internships are considered work placements which are time limited and that allow people to gain on the job experience. About two thirds of internships are paid however for those organisations in the Voluntary & Community Sector that use the term ‘Intern’ and do not provide payment, Volunteer Now is keen that they are clear about what this means for them.

An organisation will face different legal obligations if their interns are in fact “workers” rather than “volunteers”. The law is clear that people will fall under one of the following:-

 A worker, and eligible for payment of the National Minimum Wage (NMW)

 A worker, but expressly exempt in the legislation and not eligible for the NMW (e.g. a voluntary worker). See NMW guidelines re exemptions and definition of voluntary worker for this purpose

  Not a worker and therefore not eligible for the NMW, (e.g. a volunteer)

Deciding whether or not to pay an Intern should not solely depend on resources available but should, in the main, be based on what the actual role is, why you need it and how long it is for. If the internship is a volunteer role then the individual will be making a commitment of time and energy for the benefit of society and the community, the environment or individuals outside (or in addition to) one’s immediate family. They will be unpaid and undertaking the work freely and by choice. The organisation should ensure that a volunteer Internship is flexible, covered by volunteer management good practice and support that will ensure an effective relationship that is mutually beneficial. You should be thinking about a role description, fair and consistent recruitment and selection procedures, provision of out of pocket expenses, a good induction and support structure with an opportunity to reflect on learning. See Volunteer Now’s website for a range of good practice materials around involving volunteers. There should be no contractual arrangement either written or implied and any appropriate welfare benefit regulations should be adhered to. See Volunteers and the Law Information sheet for more detail on this area: -

You may however consider that given the level of work and the commitment required, e.g. an agreed piece of work with goals to be achieved in a set time period, that it is in the best interests of the organisation, including avoiding any legal repercussions, that the intern role is an employee relationship and provide appropriate remuneration. If an organisation is paying an Intern then all employment rights and legislation will apply.

Getting a paid job is a competitive process and individuals, particularly young people, are looking for opportunities to gain experience. Internships can provide valuable work experience and skill development, however not everyone can afford to take up an unpaid situation.  As a Sector we promote diversity and inclusion – we do not want to create a situation where Internships become exclusive and/or we exploit people’s good will. As a Sector we have a good track record of providing valuable learning opportunities and rewarding experiences through both employment and volunteering opportunities.

Perhaps therefore the debate about internships is not so much about payment and more about good practice. Understanding and valuing the difference between the volunteer role and the employee role will help organisations to make the right choice.

For further information on this article contact the Policy and Information Team at Volunteer Now on 02890 232020.

So are unpaid internships a good or bad thing? Join the debate on our Civic Engagement page by clicking here

Further reading:-

Richmond, T. (2010) ‘Internships: to pay or not to pay’, Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, available from

Volunteering England (2011) ‘Internships Explained’, available from

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