How to Make Internships Work for You and Your Summer Interns

Internship programs can be a boon for your business. Discover how you can make the most of the summer interns who will be coming through your door this season.
July 17, 2018

With summer here, many college students are taking a break. But there's another group of students ready to work at summer internships. When you have tasks that could be performed by college students, hiring summer interns can give you some valuable temporary assistance.

If you're thinking that hiring a summer intern could also provide you with inexpensive or cheap labor, you'll need to rethink that.

Unpaid internships are becoming less common, and internship salaries in are climbing. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2018 Internship & Co-op Survey, the average hourly rate for interns rose 3.7 percent from last year. (The survey was conducted from November 2017 to March 2018 and included 309 NACE employer members.)

Give summer interns clear, concise information about responsibilities, and identify the goals of the internship with your managers to make sure you're aligned internally.

—Katie Dow, associate director, talent management, Global Agora

“The days of internships viewed as 'free labor' or an afterthought in a company have ended," says Matt Stewart, co-founder of College Works Painting, which provides house-painting business experience for college students.

With the labor market continuing to tighten, many summer interns are increasingly able to choose the type of internships they'd like.

“Paid internships are more appealing to students, especially with college tuition fees being so high," says Stewart. “Offering a fantastic work experience to summer interns is more important than ever, as well as offering pay—both of which helps lure the best internship applicants."

Making the Most of Summer Interns

“When you offer summer internships, the program should be well-coordinated and designed to bring value to the company and intern," says Stewart. “Treat the internship position as you would any other employment opportunity."

“Summer interns come to work at your company to learn," adds Katie Dow, associate director, talent management at Global Agora, a venture capital firm that launches its own companies and invests in seed-stage, high-growth startups. Dow has managed many paid summer interns.

“When possible, allow summer interns as much exposure to the different aspects of their jobs as possible," says Dow. “By allowing them to determine where their real interests lie, you'll be able to identify their areas of strengths and weaknesses. This will help you make the most of their services."

There are a few additional tactics that can help make hiring summer interns a win-win for everyone.

1. Inquire about college credit. 

“It's important to know what the student expects regarding credit," says Dow. “Your company's HR person should also be in touch with the career services office at each college or university where you're actively seeking interns. Ensure the internship requirements align with your company's."

2. Maintain realistic expectations. 

“This may be one of the summer intern's first experiences in a professional work environment," says Dow. “Keep that in mind as you manage the intern."

3. Provide clear direction. 

“Give summer interns clear, concise information about responsibilities, and identify the goals of the internship with your managers to make sure you're aligned internally," says Dow.

She suggests providing summer interns with organizational charts of the company, so they understand the inner workings of the business. Before summer interns begin working on projects, she also advises explaining the company's goals and providing clear instructions and training.

4. Check in regularly. 

“See that managers schedule weekly check-in meetings when they take the interns to lunch," says Dow. “This will allow management to discuss progress with summer interns and answer questions in a comfortable, casual environment."

5. Discuss the summer intern's goals. 

During the interview process, Dow asks summer interns about goals and expectations and why the applicants want to work for the company.

“Are they looking to gain professional work experience, or are they hoping their internship will lead to a full-time position?" says Dow. “If the intern is interviewing at several companies, and the goal is to obtain a full-time job after the internship, you may miss out on a talented applicant if you don't ask the question."

Should You Consider Unpaid Internships?

The criteria for unpaid internships—as outlined by the U.S. Department of Labor—are hard to meet.

First, the experience must be mostly about learning for the intern and to his or her benefit. The employer can't gain any immediate advantages from the intern's work. The intern also can't displace any employees. The internship must provide credits and adhere to the academic calendar. After the internship is over, summer interns aren't automatically entitled to a job. They also can't earn wages for the time spent as an intern.

If you're able to meet those requirements and want to offer an unpaid internship, you may not be able to not attract as many student applicants as you might otherwise, cautions Stewart.

"For unpaid internships, I'd also advise speaking to a labor lawyer," he says. "The criteria is unique in many states. There could be real penalties if the program is not designed properly."

Read more articles on hiring & HR.

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