Have you considered starting an intern program, but decided against it because you didn't think you had what it takes to compete with the big companies and their fancy internship programs? Think again. Interns are not just for large corporations with entire departments dedicated to running the program. Many small-business owners have found that internships are a tremendous benefit to their company and provide a great way to help mentor future professionals in their industry.
By implementing a few strategies, you can start a successful internship program that will not only improve your company’s efficiency but also will take some of the pressure off you and your team—allowing you to focus on what's most important: growing your business.
Determine the tasks and skill set
As you go through your day, consider each task you do and determine whether or not it's something that you can delegate to someone else. When you have an idea for a new project, ask yourself if it's something that an intern could take on. “Keep a list of projects as they come up that another body would help,” says Eva Wisnik, president of Wisnik Career Enterprises, a career strategy firm in New York City. Her company has three full-time employees and typically has one to three interns each semester.
Look at the list and come up with a profile of the skill set needed to complete these tasks. Although you may be in the construction or technology business, you may realize that the projects and tasks you need help with require the skills of an English major.
Develop relationships with the colleges in your area
Many small-business owners struggle to find the right interns. One of the most effective ways to find interns is to establish relationships with a nearby college offering a degree program related to your business needs. Compare the profile of your ideal intern and look at the colleges nearby. Kim Garretson with Ovative Group says that his company works with journalism schools that have majors in digital media and marketing, since his company is a digital business consulting boutique.
Garretson says his company then partners with the professors at these colleges and asks them to recommend students for the internship program. “This saves us having to sort through too many candidates if we publicize the openings, plus the college professors over time learns the type of student who will best succeed with us,” says Garretson.
Be clear about the role and responsibilities
When interviewing interns, be very specific about what you expect them to do at your company and what a typical day will look like. You don’t want an unhappy intern three months down the road because they thought they would be actually designing the website when in fact your plan all along was for them to do the research.
David Meadvin, president of Inkwell Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based small business that specializes in speech writing and leadership communication, recommends being very up front with the candidates. “One of the first things I tell them in the interview process is that interning for a small company is much different from a big company, and try to give them a fair analysis of the pros and cons of both,” says Meadvin.
Provide adequate training
Make sure that you give your interns proper training both to increase their confidence and ensure the work is done accurately. When they first arrive, have an employee show them how to do all of their required tasks and also give them written instructions in case no one is available. Let the intern know which employee to go to with questions.
Wisnik has her outgoing interns write up a Best Practices guide for the new interns. “They put everything they learned into a manual and update the procedures for interns,” says Wisnik. This allows the training guide to be written from the perspective of an entry level employee, geared towards college students—and also relieves the business owner from having to write a manual herself.
Mentor your interns
In addition to increasing your company's productivity, having an intern is a great way to help a college student get a head start on his or her professional career. Take the time to give your intern opportunities in areas that are of specific interest to them, and be sure to give them many real-world opportunities to build their skills.
Wisnik says that she takes the time to explain the “whys” of the business to her interns. “Sit with them after a client meeting. Talk about what the client was asking, explain the consequences of all of the options and tell them how you made the decision that you did. This is the type of thing that they won’t learn in school,” says Wisnik. She also adds that she has learned a lot from her interns and that she often ends up implementing many of their ideas.
Having an intern makes good business sense because it frees you up to do the tasks that only you can perform. But it also gives you a chance to help someone else learn skills that will help them for years to come. Most likely in your career someone took the time to be your mentor and give you opportunities to grow professionally. Starting an internship program at your company gives you and your employees the chance to be that person for someone else. (Read more on mentoring.)
Jennifer Gregory is a journalist with over 17 years professional writing experience. Jennifer blogs via Contently.com.
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