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Blog • 30.08.22

Work experience and internships: what is the difference?

Sian H
Junior HR Consultant

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The summer and autumn terms are times when you might be asked to take on young people for work experience or have students help out in the holidays. 

Giving a young person work experience can be helpful for someone just starting out in their career, while providing some additional support and bringing new skills into your business, albeit on a temporary basis. It can be beneficial for small businesses to take on work experience students who can help out with those tasks or projects you may not have got round to, whilst bringing fresh perspectives to the business.

In this blog we explore the key considerations to bear in mind when taking someone on for work experience, and some of the key differences to be aware of between work experience placements and internships.

Work experience

Work experience is often organised by schools, but you may also be approached directly by a student. If you take on a young person for work experience, they will usually be shadowing and observing others rather than completing any actual work themselves. For example, a student interested in a career in business management may be able to shadow the office manager.

When taking on a young person for work experience, we recommend carrying out a risk assessment to cover any necessary health & safety requirements. If they are purely work shadowing and not completing any work, they are unlikely to qualify for national minimum wage.

As they are not being paid, you do not need to give them a contract, however we would recommend issuing a confidentiality agreement. Where applicable, the agreement should cover the expectations around confidentiality, intellectual property and health & safety. This will help to protect your business.


Although a common term, intern has no specific legal meaning in UK employment law. However, internships tend to work slightly differently to work experience placements. Interns will normally be completing some work or specific tasks rather than just solely observing others. For example, your student intern could work on producing a specific project in their interested area, maybe marketing or customer services, that could help towards a bigger project.

Where interns are working for your business, they are likely to fall under national minimum wage legislation and should therefore be paid for the hours they work. We recommend issuing a fixed term (temporary) contract for the duration of the internship. An exception to this is where students need to complete an internship for under a year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course, such as a college course or degree programme. When this happens, they are not usually entitled to national minimum wage.

Another important difference between work experience and internships is the level of supervision and support. If you take on an intern, it is a good idea to arrange for someone in the team to be their main point of contact and meet with them regularly to discuss their learning objectives and any issues they may have.

We can support you if you need any help, while our software can also lend a helping hand to help manage them. Your paid interns can be set up as a temporary employee on a standard fixed-term contract, while you can add you work experience students as volunteers so that it doesn’t pro-rata holiday or pay.

As with your team’s engagement, interns are likely to feel more engaged with their placement if they feel fully supported during their time with the business. Meanwhile, acting as a mentor to provide this support can be a useful upskilling exercise for your more junior employees.

How will I know if it is work experience or an internship?

Asking yourself the following questions will help you to decide how to handle the placement or contract.

  1. Will they be expected to undertake work for the business?

Someone who is shadowing others and not completing any work themselves won’t be eligible for national minimum wage. However, if the individual will be carrying out work tasks, they are likely to fall under national minimum wage legislation. In this case, provided their internship is not part of an education course, a fixed term contract on minimum wage is recommended.

  1. Will the individual have a set working pattern?

If the young person is expected to work a set number of hours each week for a fixed period of weeks or months, they are likely to be classed as an intern rather than being on a shorter more ad-hoc work experience arrangement.

If you take someone under 18, there are some specific restrictions to be aware of regarding their working hours. These include that under 18s cannot work outside of the hours of 7am to 7pm and are entitled to a beak of at least 1 hour if they work for more than 4 hours.


Here are some key considerations to have in mind:

We recommend taking the time to determine the purpose and responsibilities of the individual’s time with your business. Although they can be similar in nature, work experience and internships have important differences to be aware of. In either scenario, students and young people can add real value to your business, bringing fresh perspectives and high energy!

So, in summary, not only can taking on someone for work experience give them valuable exposure to the working world, but it can also bring new skills and fresh perspectives to your business.

The content of this blog is for general information only. Please don’t rely on it as legal or other professional advice as that is not what we intend. You can find more detail on this in our Terms of Website Use. If you require professional advice, please get in touch.

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SafeHR can help you with any aspect of managing your people, including the things to be aware of when taking on students for work experience. We’re the small business HR and Payroll experts. Our helpful experts and clever software can help if you are thinking about offering these types of placements.

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