What you want in an intern is someone who's interested in learning your business (and the world of business) and who will, in turn, help your company. And even though you can surely find high-quality interns who are willing to work for free, that's becoming increasingly rare.

With high-profile disputes in the news, the legal climate has changed, and there's nothing to prevent your unpaid interns of today from returning six months later and suing for back pay.

In the end, don't be scared off by the cost of paying interns. They can still be assets to your company, and you can be a big help to them too. But how to go about it? Nathan Parcells, chief marketing officer at InternMatch, has some advice on what you need to do in order to get a great intern--and how much it's going to cost you.

Q: Why should you pay interns? Plenty are willing to work for free.
A: In a lot of our research with big employers, those that have paid programs and have tracked the difference found massive benefits for their business as a whole and for their bottom line. Here's what we found:

  • You get three times the number of applicants for roles that offer at least a minimum wage vs. roles that are unpaid. What this translates to is a big uptick in intern quality, culture fit, and everything that goes into making a hire.
  • There's research that shows that paid interns are more likely to convert to full-time hires and are more likely to stay with the company long term.
  • Paid internships lower your risk. There has been an increase in internship lawsuits, including major cases against Fox Searchlight and Condé Nast. Beyond getting sued, if you have unpaid interns, there's risk to your brand in bad publicity.

Q: What are some other benefits to paying interns?
A: The big thing is diversity. Stats show that African Americans and Hispanics are much more likely to be holding college debt than white and Asian students. They are also more likely to be first-generation college students and to need to support their families. Organizations that are trying to hire diverse candidates will struggle if they force students to choose between a paycheck and an internship program.

Q: How do companies respond when you suggest that they pay their interns? It's a big change from years past.
A: We've had earnest conversations with a large number of companies. They've gotten the message. I think that small programs are easier. We've done webinars and helped people shift to paying programs. The ones that struggle are companies with 300 to 400 unpaid interns in the course of a year, so changing to paid would mean a total revamp to their intern program. Even though it's more challenging, companies like Viacom have seen the strategic benefit and shifted entirely to paid, so it's still possible.

Q: What can a company expect to change when they switch from unpaid to paid internships?
First and foremost, the big difference is quality of applicants. Everyone has heard stories of an intern who was hired for a summer and spent more time getting trained than adding value. That happens when you hire students who aren't the right fit. When you switch to paying interns, the quality of applicants goes up, so does the speed of training, so does the value an intern adds over a summer, and so does the likelihood that you end up hiring that person.

Payment doesn't need to be exorbitant either. For roles outside of technology or design, you can pay a little above minimum wage and still get top students. The cool thing is that a nominal increase in spend gets you a huge increase in quality.