Hiring interns can create great opportunities for your business and the students involved. The need to have an innovative, talented, and experienced workforce provides this unique opportunity for businesses to create a mutually beneficial relationship.
Each entity helps give the other a competitive edge in a properly structured program.
An internship is a form of experiential learning. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, an internship is a form of learning which integrates theory and knowledge that is learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development within a professional setting.
The problem that many businesses discover is that the reality of an internship program is much different than the initial expectations of one.
An internship is not a way to get free help. It is not a program that is designed to replace paid employees.
Interns shouldn’t even be doing more than 20% busy work during the day, like running errands or covering the phone for you.
An internship program must include observation, reflection, and evaluation for specific learning objectives. You’re creating both hard and soft-skill development for the intern while you benefit from their presence in the workplace in a variety of ways.
If you’re thinking about hiring interns for your business, this introductory guide to the process will help you dig deeper into the idea to see if it is right for you.
Find the Value in Hiring Interns
Whether the internship is paid or unpaid, interns bring a lot of value when they’re brought on-board. As with most things in life, the more you’re willing to invest into an internship program, the better the program will be.
Better internship programs become more competitive. Competitive programs attract a strong pool of applicants who want to be an intern for you.
Although some companies can’t wrap their budgets around the cost of such a program, you’ll find that the rewards of a structured internship program can be well worth the investment.
It Gives You a Fresh Perspective
An intern is coming into your company with a fresh set of eyes. They aren’t blinded by current job duties, personal expectations, or specific policies.
All they’re doing is bringing their experience and intelligence to the table, which allows you to benefit from the diversity of perspective. Include interns with your brainstorming meetings and encourage them to speak up if they have an idea.
Your Technology Insights Can Evolve
Every generation has a different perspective of technology. Today’s thirty-somethings can still remember a time at home when computers and the Internet weren’t common. Today’s twenty-somethings dealt with those slow dial-up modems when they were kids and appreciate the enhancements that have come over the years.
Our youngest generation will see technology very differently because it has always been around. Every perspective allows you to evolve how you see tech, which gives you potential avenues for growth.
There Are Top Talent Recruitment Opportunities
Interns may not have a guaranteed job, but it doesn’t mean that you are unable to give that person a job if they have earned it.
Your expectations for an internship must be clear and concise when the position is awarded. In 2017, over 51% of the internships that were offered an entry-level position were converted.
It Provides You With an Extra Set of Hands
Interns may not take on a lot of responsibility at work, but they do provide an extra set of hands when you need some help. Assuming that the project has an educational foundation to it for the intern, you’ll find that an internship becomes an invaluable resource for energy and help.
You just need to make sure supervision is present for the intern and that feedback is provided for their work.
There are Mentorship Opportunities
Interns thrive when they are able to fall under the mentorship of your experienced employees. Your employees benefit from the mentorship of an intern as well.
We often think of mentorship as an old-teaching-the-young scenario. It should be a two-way street, where reverse mentorship happens too.
Alan Webber, Co-Founder of Fast Company, describes reverse mentorship in this way: “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way as the young twenty-something’s.
They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future.
Where to Find the Right Interns to Hire
There are four basic locations where your business can find a potential intern if you are based in the United States.
High school students are an overlooked category which deserve a second look. These students are often interested in developing their professional skills while exploring career options.
An internship allows them to discover their strengths and weaknesses while they pursue a desire for an advanced education or skilled vocation in the future.
Most intern work is associated with undergraduate interns. These students are enrolled in a 2-year or 4-year college program.
They can benefit a workplace by bringing the experience of their curriculum to you. That means new ideas and concepts can help everyone further their personal and professional development.
Graduate students are looking for internships as well. After earning their undergraduate degree, these students look for ways to advance research or develop professional-level skills that will help them enter the workplace in the near future and be instantly competitive.
You will also find international undergraduate and graduate students applying for internship opportunities. Many businesses avoid this group because of the perception that the administrative requirements are excessive. They are not.
International students do not require a green card to be an intern under current U.S. law. Students who maintain their F-1 or J-1 visa are permitted to intern it their major field with permission from the Office of International Students and Scholars. Most of the administrative work comes from the student side of the equation.
Your job is pretty easy: provide an original job offer letter on company letterhead. You’ll need to provide your name and location, the academic training you’ll provide, any salary being paid, and the number of hours per week that are offered. The start and end date must also be included.
The Forgotten Group of Internship Seekers
There is a fifth category to consider for internships since the recession years of 2007-2009: experienced workers forced into a career change.
These workers already know how to manage the challenges of a professional environment. They need help building a new network and learning new skills to finish their transition. These people are a unique resource that you shouldn’t ignore if they come your way.
How to Structure an Internship Program
Before you finalize the process of hiring an intern, you must have an internship program in place. That means you must be able to carve out a space where your new interns are going to fit within the culture of your company and the goals you have in place.
Businesses come in all different shapes and sizes. That means your internship activities must follow the same program.
To design your internship program, there a few questions that are worth asking the leadership team in the initial establishment phases.
- What does the company hope to gain by establishing an internship program?
- Are there needs to fill on specific projects? Or will the interns take on a variety of projects that are smaller in scope?
- What tools will be needed for the interns to have a successful experience? Do you have any workspace issues which may need to be addressed?
- Will your interns need to come from a specific experience or academic background to have a successful internship with your business? What, in your mind, would make the perfect candidate?
- Who will be responsible for the internship program and what level will this person be on your chain-of-command.
Once you’ve solidified your answers to these questions, you’ll find the structure of the program will begin to take some shape on its own.
Flexibility Must Be a Priority
It is important to remember that flexibility must be the top priority within your internship program. School responsibilities for your intern, including their class schedule and homework requirements, have a higher priority than a project task at work.
For many interns, what they learn from you will be their first experience with an internship. It can be difficult to balance 10-20 hours of working for your business with the 20 to 40 hours of classwork they are required to do.
As students get older, they may be working a salaried position in addition to the internship if what you are offering is unpaid. Although the paid work doesn’t need to be your top priority, helping your new intern balance their schedule as best they can will give both of you a better overall experience within the program.
What Are the Laws Regarding How to Pay Interns?
In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act, referred to as the FLSA, is what regulates the minimum wage and overtime rules for workers. The FLSA includes interns.
To determine if an internship program falls under the FLSA, employers are asked to refer to Fact Sheet 71. On this fact sheet, there is a 7-factor test which is used for unpaid interns and students.The test is designed to allow for an examination of the economic reality of the relationship between an intern and the employer. This helps to establish who is the primary beneficiary in the relationship.
The 7 Factors to Consider for Intern Salary
1. The expectation that no compensation is being provided for the internship. Any promise of compensation, even if it is implied, offers the suggestion that an intern is better classified as an employee.
2. The training for the internship would be similar to what is provided in an educational environment. This includes hands-on training and clinical training.
3. The extent to which the formal education program of the intern and receipt of academic credit is tied to the internship.
4. How the employer in this situation accommodates the academic commitments of the student by scheduling with their class calendar instead of against it.
5. The duration of the internship and how it provides beneficial learning opportunities.
6. How the work of the intern complements the work of paid employees instead of displacing it, while still offering educational benefits to the intern.
7. That it is conducted without an entitlement to a paid position at the conclusion of the internship.
For-Profit Companies Struggle to Pass
If you are a for-profit company, passing this 7-factor test is a difficult proposition. That is because organizations are not to take an immediate advantage from the work of an intern. When earning profits, that type of position is extremely rare.
David Yamada, Professor of Law at Suffolk University in Boston, takes his observation to another level. “It’s fair to say most private-sector employers who employ volunteers are violating the law,” he told ProPublica.
Non-Profit (NGO) Internship Considerations
Working at a non-profit as an intern is a different story. The U.S. Department of Labor makes an exception for interns who are willing to volunteer their time. Public-sector positions qualify here as well.
The one exception to this rule is Congress. They were exempted from the FLSA, which means they have no requirement to pay their internships. Most government internships in the U.S., including those in the White House, are unpaid internships.
If you are a for-profit company, then the next logical question is this: how much do I pay an intern? The answer to that depends on the minimum-wage laws which apply to you.
There are three levels of minimum wage to consider in the United States: federal, state, and local.
Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour. Some states require a much higher wage. Washington State, for example, has a minimum wage of $11.50 per hour. California and Massachusetts have a minimum wage of $11.00 per hour.
There are also 40 counties and cities which have their own minimum wage laws which must be followed. The top minimum wage in the country was approved for airport workers in New York, at $19.00 per hour.
You would be asked to pay your interns the applicable wage that governs your specific employment jurisdiction.
The Role of the Manager in an Internship Program
From the very start, it is important to identify key leaders who will supervise a new internship program. You want these leaders to be familiar with the expectations of the program, how it relates to the organization, and understands how to provide assignments.
Managers should be involved in every process. That means they should take part in the screening and interviewing process. They should be part of the initial orientation into the program.
You also want them involved in the development of learning goals. That will allow the supervisor to meet with each intern to provide performance feedback.
Supervisors become your natural mentors within an internship program. As they share their stories of growth and their personal knowledge of the field, they’ll help to guide each intern toward a final outcome.
Some interns will stay. Some will go. The process is designed to help people figure out if the work responsibilities and industry culture make them comfortable.
How Bill Gates Approached Internships
Bill Gates was in that position once upon a time. Gates’ father was a lawyer, so Bill thought about going into a career that focused on law. His parents were also friends with Brock Adams, who offered a recommendation that Gates work as a Congressional page.
He got that opportunity in the summer of 1972. It only took one month for Gates to figure out that he was more interested in business than law or politics.
“I understood about contracts and things,” he said during 1998 testimony before the U.S. Senate. “I was interested in the business world, reading about it all the time.”
By his senior year of high school, Gates felt like he had mastered the computer at his high school. He was drawn to technology. Two years after enrolling at Harvard, he decided to drop out of school to start Microsoft.
It can be frustrating to have an intern decide that working for you isn’t for them. It is important to remember that this is a personal decision for them – not you. They are deciding on their future. You’re looking to provide opportunities in the present.
That means your intern manager must be paying attention to the behaviors of the intern while they’re working for you.
“There are industries and roles where the workload is very high and demanding,” says Ilona Jurkiewicz, who serves as the Head of Early Careers at Thomson Reuters. “Interns burn out and become exhausted, and they have a choice to make on whether this industry or company is the right place for them in the future.”
You may also notice some interns dressing inappropriately, missing work repetitively, or struggling to find their place within your company culture. These are all impediments to your mutual future success. If your intern manager can recognize these issues before they become problematic, your program will have a better chance to grow and thrive in the future.
Internships vs Apprenticeships: Which Is Better?
Internships and apprenticeships are sometimes used as interchangeable terms. Although both will give the individual involved some hands-on training, that is the only area of common ground that these two positions share.
Determining whether one is better than the other for your business means looking at the key differences found with these two positions if you are interested in hiring interns.
For starters, an apprenticeship lasts for a longer time period than an internship. Most internships are held for a semester or over the summer. Then it is off to the next one or the general job market.
An apprenticeship can take several years to complete. It often requires a full-time commitment of the person involved. Although some programs may last for 12-18 months, which may be similar to some long-term internships, the intern gets work experience. The apprenticeship gets more than that.
Salary Considerations with Apprenticeships vs Internships
Then there is the matter of pay. Excluding the unpaid internship, most interns will be paid the minimum wage or close to it. Apprenticeships are closer to a full-time wage and provides enough to meet the local cost of living standards in most circumstances.
Responsibility is another difference. If you’re working in an internship, then your responsibility levels are going to be minimal.
With an apprenticeship, you’re actually working the job. You are learning what you will be doing as a career for the rest of your working life.
Both positions involve some classroom work. The difference is that an internship works toward college credit, while the apprenticeship works toward industry certifications you may need. It should be noted that some jobs do offer school-based certifications that can be earned outside of an apprenticeship program for a similar outcome.
Then there is the job factor. You are not guaranteed a job as an intern. As an apprentice, you will receive an offer for employment once you complete the program.
In the United States, the average salary for an apprentice is $13.65 per hour, based on more than 3,000 salaries that were anonymously submitted. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the average starting wage for an apprentice is $15 per hour.
Common Mistakes to Avoid with an Internship Program
The biggest mistake a business can make with their internship program is to not follow the law. You must make sure that you are paying interns when necessary, following educational guidelines, and passing the 7-factor test from Fact Sheet 71.
Once you get past that hurdle, there are several common mistakes that businesses make with their internship programs that must be avoided as well. Try to avoid these issues whenever possible.
Prepare Your Interns
Interns need to be eased into their positions. Expecting them to be immediately successful in a new situation, where they may feel intimidated, can cause good people to walk away.
Walk your new interns through their role in your business instead. Adopt a formal onboarding process if you don’t have one already. Assign them a workspace, give them a company email address, and help them get familiar with their new surroundings.
The NASC recommends that a separate intern website be provided. At the very least, they should have a separate handbook as part of the hiring process.
“You can use your website as a communication tool, with announcements from the college relations staff or even articles of interest written by the interns themselves.
Devote The Resources Necessary
The specifics of an internship can be very different, whether it is a paid or unpaid opportunity. Even though it might not look good for the budget at first, it is a good idea to offer enrichment opportunities within your internship program.
Give your interns networking opportunities. Let them attend business seminars. Have them take a business trip with you if the situation allows for it. When you build a fun learning environment, you’re both going to benefit.
The NASC suggests providing housing and relocation assistance. “Few employers can afford to provide fully paid housing for interns, but you’ll find that you get a lot of appreciation if you offer any kind of assistance toward housing expenses.”
Think Twice Before Assigning Social Media Responsibilities
On the surface of things, it makes sense when hiring interns to offer control over the company’s social media pages. Then reality sets in. That intern isn’t familiar with your corporate culture.
They don’t know the voice you’ve used for your message, vision, or mission. You’re just as likely to have an intern fire off a snarky post like Wendy’s as you are to have them give you a great post. That’s great if you have sarcasm as part of your online presence – not so much if you do not.
The NASC does suggest offering real work assignments. “Providing interns with real work is number one to ensuring your program’s success.” The interns should be performing work that is related to their major, so coordinate with your managers to ensure this best practice can be followed.
Too Much Work Independence Can Be Risky
An internship is not meant to be an independent position. They need mentors and people to be there to support them. Be their sounding board, and then let them come up with crazy ideas. Letting them be unleashed without any support will often create disastrous results.
The NASC says that a best practice is to involve college recruiting teams within your internship program. “They can sponsor social or professional development events and help to orient the interns to your company culture.”
Choose Mentors Strategically
Mentorship selection should be strategic with an internship program. You need to create partnerships that will work well together. You need information to travel both ways in the relationship.
When hiring interns, both individuals should see improvements in their professional skills because of the relationship.
The NASC suggests that you could coordinate career center staff and faculty visits at your business location to help with this process. “By inviting them to your site, you will build a better working relationship with these groups, which can lead to more student referrals, enhanced campus visibility, and increased flexibility.”
The Exit Interview: A Final Step for Interns
An internship program should showcase the work the interns are doing. It should conduct focus groups, encourage outside classes, and even offer scholarship opportunities.
It should also include an exit interview when the internship expires.
These interviews can happen over the phone, but a face-to-face interview is the better option. Have the intern manager or a member of your student relations team ask questions that can gather feedback on the experience of each intern.
Develop an exit survey that will give some structure to this conversation. Give interns a chance to provide feedback that is anonymous, if possible, to get information they may not be willing to share in person.
Although an intern isn’t a “regular” employee, they are often treated as one, especially in a for-profit setting.
When designing an internship program, it is important to follow each of these steps to ensure that you and your interns have a successful experience.
Build some flexibility into your schedule. Let your interns brainstorm new ideas, no matter how crazy they might be. Give them opportunities to explore their strengths and develop their skills. Even if that intern decides to take a job somewhere else, you’ll have still changed the world for the better in a small way.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.