Articles

Mindful Planning and Management Can Yield Municipality Internship Program Success

October 18, 2016      |      David Mullen, Esq.   

Student interns are becoming increasingly popular at all levels of government. Hiring an intern sounds like a win-win situation − the municipality gets an enthusiastic, educated and engaged worker for little-to-no expense, while a student gains the chance to explore a potential career field in a meaningful way. However, local government officials should proceed cautiously when deciding whether or not to hire an intern.

Use U.S. Department of Labor Regulations as a Guide
While the U.S. Department of Labor generally allows state and local governments to employ unpaid interns, municipalities should be aware of issues the for-profit sector can encounter. In one case, three people, one of whom had a master's degree at the time, became unpaid interns with the promise of participating in production of the movie Black Swan. Instead they spent their unpaid internship tracking purchase orders, getting lunch for the production crew, assembling office furniture, shipping documents and taking out trash.1   

A judge looked at U.S. Department of Labor regulations that determine whether a private sector internship can be unpaid.2 The judge determined that, in order for an internship to be unpaid, the work must be similar to vocational training in an educational environment, the experience must be for the benefit of the intern, and—most importantly—the intern’s work must not displace employees.

While the judge's decision was eventually overturned on appeal and was explicitly limited to for-profit employers, it provides a valuable lesson for any municipality considering an intern. Interns should be developing tangible skills and growing as a professional, not performing mundane tasks such as assembling office furniture, or used as free labor. The intern should be given substantive tasks relevant to his or her education. The second lesson to be learned from this case is that careful planning pays off. Starting with a defined set of activities, goals and responsibilities for an intern helps the municipality reduce or eliminate any legal exposure.

Define an Intern's Duties and Role to Avoid Confusion
An intern might not have the experience necessary to perform at the same level as an employee. Carefully plan and tailor an intern's duties before even starting to search for one. This way, the municipality's needs are clearly defined, and any risk that the hired intern will absorb time and resources unnecessarily is minimized. Keep in mind that even the best intern needs supervision. Prepare the department's employees to spend time working with the intern and educating him or her about the performance expectations. Encourage them to pass along "tricks of the trade" to the intern.

Use Interns to "Start the Pipeline" for Future Employees
At some companies, a prior internship is practically a prerequisite to getting an entry-level position. Banks, law firms, federal agencies, engineering firms and technology companies all frequently employ interns in a "pipeline" fashion. A competitive internship program that builds participants' competencies can help create a pool of competitive candidates for entry-level positions, and even for other positions within the municipality.

Think of an internship as a "test drive" for a potential new employee. Today's intern will one day be looking for a job. By having a competitive intern hiring process and an exceptional experience to offer interns, a municipality can move to the top of a new graduate's job application shortlist. An internship program can also be used to vet future candidates who look good on paper but lack the drive, skills, ambition or work ethic to excel in a position.

Access to Innovation Can Lend Edge, Reduce Costs
Colleges and universities thrive on innovation. Municipalities can parlay this to their advantage. An intern can initiate new projects or improve existing processes in the municipality. For example, an intern studying urban planning may have university access to geographic information system software that could help a municipality maximize its mosquito control efforts, or better understand the car traffic patterns. This access is priceless, and can even prevent the use of expensive contractors in some cases.

Employee Relations the Core of Successful Program
The U.S. Department of Labor has openly stated that unpaid interns should not displace paid employees. The presence of an unpaid or low-paid worker can make seasoned employees feel they are somehow in danger of being replaced. Carefully planning an intern's tasks so he or she does not infringe on the duties of current employees is important in maintaining good employee relations.

Carefully structuring an intern's duties so he or she is complimentary to, rather than competitive with, the municipality's workforce is a best practice that will reduce conflict and confusion. With properly structured programs, employees can enjoy the start of an internship as it allows them to concentrate on other duties or work more efficiently. Make sure employees are aware of why the intern was hired and what the intern is supposed to do.

An internship program can be a valuable addition to any municipality's workforce; however, it should be approached thoughtfully and with a commitment to ensuring there is mutual benefit between the intern and the municipality.

For more information, please contact Mr. David Mullen, Esq. Mr. Mullen is an attorney who handles general consumer collection and legal matters.


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1  Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., 791 F.3d 376 (United States Court of Appeals, 2nd Cir., 2015)
2  https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.pdf