The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Hiring Interns

by Lucy Leiderman

There is a lot of controversy about being an intern, not getting paid for your work, and the lack of jobs in the creative sector.

Not surprisingly, 75% of graduates claim to have done an internship and the number has doubled since the 80s. But what about the other side of the coin? Are businesses actually getting the best bang for their buck? (Yes, there are actual bucks involved). Do interns contribute to a company’s bottom line in a positive way? Are service providers losing out because of the huge influx of interns?

Note: Larger companies have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into recent graduate recruitment and internship programs, so for the sake of clarity, I’m speaking about small to medium sized businesses.


Interns are desirable not only for free labour, but many government programs actually offer tax incentives to companies to pay interns. Aside from the money aspect, interns have usually just come from a post-secondary education or professional training. They’re likely to be ready and willing to learn, but also eager to input new ideas.

While there will inevitably be time spent training and correcting any new hire, whether temporary or not, interns are usually hired much quicker than an employee and so, arguably, the time spent post-hire makes up for the time spent pre-hire. And, if your intern works out, you just saved a lot of time looking for, hiring and training your next employee.


…Unfortunately, the above doesn’t happen very often. According to Forbes, if you’re in a paid internship you’re 60% likely to get a job offer. In a free internship? Your odds are 37%—only 1% more than someone who has never done an internship.

Anyone can guess other negative aspects of hiring an intern: training human capital that walks out the door in a few months, having to put in a lot of time managing your new intern, and getting an unreliable worker who is very aware the role is temporary (I feel this last one has a lot to do with not getting paid while carrying student loans).

There’s a lot be said for being someone’s first employer, and one to which the intern owes no commitment. But from what I’ve seen, the apathetic intern is a lot less dangerous than the eager one. Here are some things any intern (and employee for that matter) could easily do to hurt your company and your bottom line:

  • Unaware of international ethics on e-marketing and e-campaigns, Intern may purchase a list of leads and send them a message on behalf of the company. If using a responsible program like MailChimp, that will get you suspended really quickly and you’ve burned those leads.
  • New to corporate and ‘diplomatic’ language, Intern may say something inappropriate over any social media channel or through newsletters that will get you the bad kind of press.
  • Feeling eager for quick results, Intern may employ the "black hat" variety of SEO over your blog or website. Google is quick to punish this.

With the best intentions at heart, your intern can quickly cost you a lot more than you were willing to spend. And a lot of companies know this. Forbes reports that paid interns spend 42% of their time on professional work with 25% going to clerical work. For unpaid interns, that number is down to only 30% of time spent on any professional tasks.


Are professionals losing out from supplying companies with their services for scaling out business due to the influx of available interns? In my experience, yes and no. Yes at first, and no later.

Many new companies (especially those based in technology) may tend to undervalue soft skills like copywriting, design, sales, marketing, etc. And luckily, there are thousands of interns in the downtown Toronto core being pumped out of institutions with a certificate in those very things. If an organization tends to think blogs are words, no one’s looking at what a newsletter looks like, and anyone can cold call, it’s easy to understand why it’s tempting to try the free-hire first (especially on a tight budget).

But years of experience, connections and expertise just can’t be explained or taught. And when an intern either does one of the "oopsies" described above or fails to meet their employers’—sometimes unrealistic—expectations for success, the companies fall back to their service provider.

Here’s the ugly truth of it: fixing mistakes or scrapping something and starting from scratch costs more than just doing it right the first time. A lot more. It’s the difference between not having a Twitter account and building your brand, versus having your brand sullied all over the media and remedying it.

I was an intern. I learned a lot. But since then a lot has changed for both recent grads and employers. A lot of talent has been virtually forced into entrepreneurship by the lack of positions available and companies must sift longer and deeper to find service providers that are worth the price.

My only suggestion is for both interns and employers to consider what they hope to get out of the mutual relationship before engaging in the commitment.

Photo: Alamy

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Lucy Leiderman

Lucy Leiderman

Lucy Leiderman is the Director of Digital Strategy at Pilot PMR, an award-winning Toronto PR firm. She is also the co-founder of Canto Labs, a dev shop active internationally. With a passion for geomarketing, she has worked and consulted with industry leaders in military security organizations, non-profits, start-ups and more. She is a fan of metaphors and pop culture references. more

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