Internship Programs
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Internship Programs

Q: Steve – I recently read your colleague about the challenges of hiring young people, but my question for you is this: What about college kids? I would like to bring in a few free interns. How do I get started? - Dan

A: Slow down there, cowboy!

If you think an internship program is an easy source of free labor, you would be both right and wrong. Right, in that in this economy the number of unpaid internship programs has definitely climbed over the past few years, but wrong in that getting someone to do work for free that otherwise would require a paid employee often violates federal and state minimum wage and other laws.

So be careful.

And consider this too: For the most part, the old adage is true – you get what you pay for. People who work for free – even for experience or class credit – often do a poor job and/or often resent it. Hiring a college kid to do menial work at no cost because you cannot afford to pay someone does you both a disservice. They get little of the real-world experience they need and expect, and you get a smart kid who thinks you are a user. Not a good combo.

So if you want to create an internship program, then do it right. Here’s how:

Hire like it’s a job: An intern should be more than just an extra pair of hands. Be careful about who you bring in. You want someone trustworthy and who fits with the culture of your business. Take the interview process seriously.

Create a valuable experience: Back in the day I was a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. I did eight internships over nine months. The best was when I was able to spend three weeks with a local labor leader and follow him around to almost every meeting and negotiation in which he participated. I still use the lessons learned from that experience today. The worst was working for a media company and getting put in an empty office with nothing to do for three weeks.

If you are fortunate enough to get kids who want to work at your office for little pay, then make it worth their while. They are typically very capable and eager to please. Use that. Give them real work. Let them sit in on meetings. Give realistic assignments for their skill level.

Give them training, supervision and a mentor: Another reason not to think that an intern is free labor is the cost to your organization in terms of time and supervision. Effective internships occur when the intern is given proper training, supervision, and feedback.

You have to help them help you.

Often, the best way to do this is to assign a mentor to the intern. Having one point person gives the intern a key to the castle and gives you a way of ensuring that she is getting her work done properly and on time.

Avoid all work and no play: College students are not used to the 9 to 5 grind. They need and are used to more downtime. By combining some fun into their experience – maybe an afternoon at a ballgame for instance – the internship can also infuse your business with some energy.

Have high expectations: A good intern wants to be challenged, and so there is a fine line between doing that . . . and overburdening him or her. Walk it carefully.

Bottom line: Brining in interns will probably be more work than you expect, but should be worth it if you do it right.

Today’s Tip: Even an intern can cause liability for your business, just like an employee. As such, be sure to check with your insurance carrier to see if the intern is covered, and make sure the intern knows this too.

© 2010 Steven D. Strauss,