Internship is a system of on-the-job training for white-collar jobs, similar to an apprenticeship. Interns are usually college or university students, but they can also be high school students or post graduate adults seeking skills for a new career. They may also be as young as middle school or in some cases elementary students. Student internships provide opportunities for students to gain experience in their field, determine if they have an interest in a particular career, create a network of contacts, or gain school credit. Internships provide employers with cheap or free labor for (typically) low-level tasks. Some interns find permanent, paid employment with the companies in which they interned. Their value to the company may be increased by the fact that they need little to no training.
An internship may be paid, unpaid or partially paid (in the form of a stipend). Paid internships are most common in the medical, architecture, science, engineering, law, business (especially accounting and finance), technology and advertising fields. Internships in non-profit organizations such as charities and think tanks are often unpaid, volunteer positions. Internships may be part-time or full-time - typically they are part-time during the university year and full-time in the summer. They usually last 6–12 weeks, but can be shorter or longer, depending on the company involved. The act of job shadowing may also constitute interning.
Many internships in the United States are career specific. Students often choose internships based on their major at the university/college level. It is not uncommon for former interns to acquire full-time employment at an organization once they have enough necessary experience. The challenging job market has made it essential for college students to gain real world experience prior to graduation. In the US, company internships are at the center of NIGMS funded biotechnology training programs for science PhD students. One example is the Biotechnology Training Program - University of Virginia.
Not all internships are paid. Nearly all interns working in the United States must be paid, and at least the minimum wage, for their work in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many internships that are unpaid involve receiving college credit, especially if an internship is correlated with a specific class. The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division allows an employer not to pay a trainee if all of the following are true:
- The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
- The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
- The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
- The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
- The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
An exception is allowed for individuals who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes to non-profit organizations. An exception is also allowed for work performed for a state or local government agency.
Some states have their own laws on the subject. Laws in the state of California, for example, require an employer to pay its interns working in California unless the intern receives college credit for the labor.