Working with interns can be a win/win for small businesses.  It’s a great way to get an extra hand for special projects, as well as a good opportunity to give back (mentor). Whether you are working with one this summer, or are laying the foundation for bringing one on in the fall, these tips will help you start out on the right track.

Before getting started, be sure to review the legal guidelines around interns – Here are the highlights, as outlined by the US Department of Labor.

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

One important lead-in note… Ideally the internship is tied to school credit.  The only downside for most students is they have to “pay” their school to work with you.  Many programs mandate an internship but many students want to gain experience beyond what is mandated.  Think about how you will handle this because you open yourself up to slightly more liability if they are not earning school credit.  Seek council of an employment attorney in your area for more details on this.

Now that we’ve scared you, here are our 10 keys to working with an intern.  😉

  1. Simple as it may sound, advance planning is the key to a successful internship program. Bringing on an intern only to have that person sit idle, waiting for you to assign a project, is not productive for either you or the student. Don’t approach your internship program as an afterthought.  If you don’t have time to plan, then don’t take on an intern.  Decide what you need – think BIG projects that are not mission critical to your daily business.  Do you have a “would love to do someday” list?  These are great projects for interns.
  2. Write an attractive description.  As crazy as it may sound, you need to make it sound fun and non-intimidating.  Requiring a long list of experience and skills is going to turn away students.  Be approachable and use phrases like, “we’ll help you” and “you’ll receive a lot of guidance and training” – see example: Hera Hub Internship – Marketing & Events – Sample
  3. Post your internship. For Hera Hub members: Go to the Hera Hub Members secret Facebook group and click on “Files” tab and look for the document titled “Intern Resource Guide“.  This will give you direct links to post at the major local colleges and direct contacts at the career center.  It is advised that you follow up with a call or email after you post… just to make a personal connection with the career center director.  They have a stream of students coming in daily… many of which are looking for guidance to find an internship.  If your opportunity is on their radar, you’re more likely to get a direct referral.  You may also want to try posting on www.internships.com.  It’s free and will give you a global reach.
  4. Once we receive an inquiry, we set up a phone interview to screen them.  If they are promising over the phone, we then invite them in for an in-person interview.  You’ll be able to glean everything you need from these two interactions.  From time-to-time we find some students who are absolutely not prepared for this interaction.  While they may not be a good fit for your organization, take the time to give them constructive feedback on their resume and interview skills.  Be kind but don’t baby them… these are critical interactions to their future career path.
  5. Once you secure an intern sit down with him/her to define their “learning objectives” for the period of time you’ll be working together.  We typically ask for 3 objectives and push them to think about how they would want their accomplishments reflected on their resume or LinkedIn profile (P.S. if they don’t have a LinkedIn profile, then help them create one!) .
  6. Put together a basic agreement outlining their objectives and the hands-on projects they will own.  Think juicy, beginning-to-end projects. This is a very important point!  They must feel ownership of the project.  You should work for them during the course of the project – meaning they take the lead and you’re their to guide and provide any needed resources.  Let interns work as a member of the team.  Have them interact with as many people as possible.   This should all be outlined in an agreement they sign.  See example: Hera Hub Internship Contract – SAMPLE
  7. While we allow interns to work off-site, we set regular weekly face-to-face meetings – at least an hour.  This is your check-in time with them… how are they progressing?  How can you support them?  In person check-ins are very important.  Meeting your interns at Hera Hub for these weekly meetings is a. much more professional than meeting them at a coffee shop, b. much more legal than meeting them in your home (yes, that’s not legal), c. allows them to see many professional women in action and network with other Hera Hub members.
  8. road-sign-798175_1280We don’t pay interns right off the bat.  They must prove themselves first.  We create a short, test project for them – perhaps a couple weeks.  We tell them: if you do a great job on this first project then we’ll talk about paid project work moving forward.  A paid project could be (remember nothing mission critical), set up Google Analytics for my website and create a report on best practices on how we can improve our site and engage users better.  Believe me… just because you don’t know how to do something doesn’t mean your intern can’t figure it out… they are SMART!  They know how to use the internet to find what they need.  Trust them… they can make it happen.  Let me repeat that… you don’t need to know anything about the project you’re giving them.  You’re just there to help them set objectives and guide them through the completion of the project.  Create a deadline for the project (perhaps 4 weeks) and agree on a project price up front (could be several hundred dollars).  We don’t get into hourly pay, just project work, which is paid when the project is completed.
  9. NEVER EVER give an intern admin work or direct them to get you coffee!!!  They must be taking on projects that are meaningful to their learning objectives.  Otherwise, you’ll have an unhappy intern and open yourself up to a lawsuit.
  10. Review work and give feedback.  It’s important to close the loop to help them learn where they excel and where they have room for growth.  If the intern is great we’ll also offer to give them a recommendation on LinkedIn.  See example: Internship Evaluation Form.

BONUS TIP!  Bring on two or more interns at the same time and let them create projects together and support one another.  They will learn valuable team-work skills and help encourage one another.  They will also be able to bounce ideas off one another, potentially saving you some time.