Local View: Internships can be double-edged swords in Northland

From the column: "Internships are a viable pathway to lasting employment. However, they’re also a gray area, legally."

Ali Bilden Camps.jpg
Ali Bilden Camps
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School’s out for summer, but internship season is in full swing. The Northland is home to many excellent internship programs. Every year, employers across Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin rely on these entry-level positions to keep operations running smoothly.

Likewise, students snap up these opportunities to complement their studies with real-world experience. Best case scenario for students, an internship leads to a job offer. In this sense, internships are a viable pathway to lasting employment.

However, they’re also a gray area, legally.

The Minnesota Department of Labor has a flexible set of guidelines to determine whether a position should be an internship or an employee position. These requirements touch on factors like compensation, resemblance to in-class instruction, and similarity to paid positions.

Does any given internship hold up under close examination of these criteria? It’s not always an easy question to answer, especially when internships are unpaid.


We with the nonprofit Northspan strongly advocate for employers paying interns fair wages. At the same time, we acknowledge that internships create tension within a competitive job market. Should some interns technically be employees with access to the legal protections that come with paid employment? Definitely. And if you’re a candidate seeking one of these positions, only to find you’re overqualified for low-paying internships that offer no benefits, you have a fair argument.

In view of these realities, we share the following best practices for employers which host internships or are considering starting internship programs:

  • Check the Department of Labor’s legal definition and put your internship to the test. Is it legit?
  • Take the time to develop an internship program. Clearly communicate expectations and tie an internship to measurable goals. A well-designed program can supply talent to your company for years to come.
  • And work with a human-resources expert to clarify the fine line between employees and interns when developing internships. If possible, go the extra mile and work directly with the appropriate contact at a student’s school to make sure the role meets the college’s definition of an internship experience.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce recently received a $100,000 grant through the Minnesota Department of Labor’s Youth Skills Training Program to help support paid internships. The funding is out there. We strongly encourage other chambers and organizations in our area to seek it out.

Employers can also team with programs. SciTech , for example, gives small Minnesota employers a 50% match on intern wages, up to $2,500, for STEM college students. Another example is the TechStart program in Wisconsin, a collaboration between Visions Northwest and Momentum West, designed to increase the number of internships and apprenticeships in Northwestern Wisconsin through one-to-one networking support.

Northland employers can post internships for free at , which is also a community resource for students seeking local internships and entry-level job openings.

Happy internship season!

Ali Bilden Camps is a Northspan consultant and the NORTHFORCE program manager. Northspan is a nonprofit consulting firm in Duluth that powers the region’s NORTHFORCE program .

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