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How to Distinguish Between an Intern and a Work Placement

26 July 2023

Internships and work placements offer valuable opportunities for individuals to gain experience and for businesses to meet short-term demands. However, developments in the law around their status means it’s important to understand the distinctions between interns and work experience. Here we shed light on these differences and provide practical steps for employers to engage interns provide work experience placements.

Interns vs. Work Experience

Interns are individuals, typically students or recent graduates, who gain practical knowledge and develop skills relevant to their chosen field. Internships used to be short-term but increasingly we are seeing one-year internships becoming popular. Work experience on the other hand should be for very short periods, providing a learning experience in a professional setting.

Risks Associated with Internships and Work Experience


One of the primary risks associated with internships is the potential for exploitation. Some employers may take advantage of interns to carry out jobs which should be filled by employees or casual workers. Interns are usually paid expenses and often treated as workers if the period they are interns is longer than a few weeks.

Work placement students should be treated as volunteers, and we recommend having a work placement volunteer agreement in place. Volunteers are not workers and do not have protection from for example, discrimination whereas interns are usually workers and have that protection.

While many of the steps for engaging interns and work experience staff may overlap, there are some specific considerations to keep in mind for each group. Here are some useful hints and tips:

Engaging Interns:

  • Learning Objectives: Internships are often structured around specific learning objectives or educational requirements. Take the time to understand their goals and align their projects and experiences accordingly.
  • Skill Development: Internships are opportunities for students or recent graduates to develop and apply their skills. Provide mentorship, training, and guidance tailored to their specific field of study or career interests.
  • Flexibility: Interns may have limited professional experience, so providing a flexible and supportive environment can help them adjust and grow. Offer clear instructions and be available for questions or guidance as needed.
  • Career Development: Engage interns in conversations about their long-term career goals and aspirations. Provide exposure to different aspects of the organization and opportunities to network with professionals in their field of interest.
  • Academic Requirements: Some interns may have academic requirements, such as reports or assessments, that need to be fulfilled during their internship. Be aware of these requirements and provide the necessary support and resources.

Engaging Work Experience Staff:

  • Practical Application: Work experience staff typically have a basic understanding of their field and are seeking opportunities to apply their knowledge in a professional setting. Provide hands-on experiences that challenge and expand their skills.
  • Industry Exposure: Work experience staff may be exploring different career paths or industries. Offer exposure to various departments or projects within your organization to help them gain a broader perspective.
  • Transferable Skills: Focus on developing transferable skills that can benefit work experience staff across different roles and industries. These skills include communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and adaptability.
  • Professional Networking: Work experience staff may already have some professional connections or interests in specific industries. Facilitate networking opportunities with professionals or experts who align with their career interests.
  • Project Ownership: Allow work experience staff to take ownership of projects and initiatives whenever possible. This gives them a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.

Engaging interns and work experience staff requires understanding their distinct characteristics and implementing practical strategies. Internships focus on learning objectives, skill development, and career aspirations, while work experience emphasizes practical application and industry exposure. Ensure you are clear on what you are offering, with relevant agreements in place to avoid any confusion or ambiguity.

If you need support in engaging an intern or casual worker, contact our legal team at Loch Law who will be able to create or review any contracts.

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