I’ve heard a lot of commentary this summer from business owners who think they’ve struck gold with a mother lode of inexpensive, sometimes free, labor—interns. It appears that small businesses are trying to ride the same wave that corporate America has enjoyed for decades: Hiring young, hungry college students looking for any opportunity to gain experience and pad their resumes by working at companies in their chosen field.
Given that the job market for recent college graduates is as competitive as it’s ever been, business owners believe they can offer internships to these newly minted job-seekers and to students still in school, for little or no money. To me, this is a lose-lose situation. If you want to make internships work at your company, follow the suggestions below and create an experience that’s a win-win for everyone.
1. Pay them. Many business owners I spoke to this summer wanted to offer unpaid internships to college students and recent graduates. They believed the experience gained from working at their companies outweighed paying the interns $10 to $15 an hour. My response to all of them was the same: “You get what you pay for.” In addition, check with the U.S. Department of Labor on the legal aspects of hiring unpaid interns at a for-profit company. There are six criteria that must be met in the test for unpaid interns. If you’re serious about hiring interns, do the right thing and make it a paid position.
2. Guide them. Don’t hire interns to do the meaningless grunt work in your office that no one else wants to do. Take full advantage of their brains and eagerness to learn. Before you hire an intern, put together a job description as if it were a new position in your company. What skill sets are you looking for in the right person for the job? When you hire an intern, have them report to someone in your company who can answer their questions and guide them through the project.
3. Hold a proper orientation. Don’t throw a new intern into the deep end of your company pool and say, “It’s the only way to learn our business.” Create an agenda that introduces them to every aspect of your company. Bring them up to speed on all phases and aspects of your business and the marketplace. Share with them the objectives of the internship and specific goals you have for them. A good intern will do everything they can to exceed your expectations—your job is to make sure they understand your expectations.
4. Eliminate phones. Smartphones can be the single biggest obstacle to creating a winning situation with interns. The urge to check messages, text responses, and update one’s Facebook status every 30 seconds is addicting and distracting. This may sound dictatorial, but I suggest making “no phones out during work hours” a rule when hiring new interns. In speaking with almost a dozen companies that have hired interns in the past year, I believe the attention level in new hires has measurably decreased since the introduction of smartphones, texting, and social media. The “no phone” rule will help them stay focused on the task at hand.
5. Provide an exit strategy. When creating the internship position, make sure you outline the beginning, the middle, and the end. The intern should know, in advance, when the position ends and what they need to do in order to finish the project. Prior to the end of the internship, meet with them to conduct an exit interview. Find out what they learned, what suggestions they have to improve the position, and what they would do to help take your company to the next level.
If done correctly, internships can be a valuable resource to growing, entrepreneurial companies. They can also be an incredible experience for young adults wanting to learn more about careers in their chosen fields. Done incorrectly, however, internships can be a distracting dead end for the company and a waste of time for the interns. Take the time to ensure that your internships are the former and not the latter.
As the founder and CEO of Brian Moran & Associates, Brian helps entrepreneurs run better businesses. He was formerly the executive director at The Wall Street Journal, overseeing the financial and small-business markets across the WSJ franchise. From 2002 to 2010, Brian ran Veracle Media and Moran Media Group, content companies in the SMB market.
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