Managing Interns

How to Find and Develop Yours

Interns want valuable work experience.

© iStockphoto/Juanmonino

If you hear the word 'apprentice' these days, chances are you'll automatically think of Donald Trump's famous TV show.

But in the real world, apprenticeships – or internships – don't have to be the stressful experience you've seen on television. This type of work arrangement can benefit both the intern and the business.

Internships are temporary, usually unpaid posts for people who are looking for on-the-job training. College graduates, or other people considering a career change, will often take on internships to gain the experience and contacts they need as a platform for helping to launch the next stage of their career.

How do you find a good intern? Is hiring an apprentice worth the time and expense? And how do you keep the person motivated when you can't really offer a big paycheck or stock options?

We'll answer those questions in this article.

The Role of the Intern

Interns' goals are generally to gain valuable work experience, in an industry that interests them, while they're still in school, or just recently graduated. If students aren't sure about what to choose for their college majors, working in a certain field for a summer or semester can help them decide if that's really a career they want to pursue. Or, as is more often the case in these economically challenging times, if entry-level jobs are hard to find without work experience, recent graduates may gain that experience by completing an internship.

However, just because college graduates are working in the business for free, don't make the mistake of thinking that interns are there to do all the work you don't want to do. Their job is not to get your coffee or pick up lunch when you're too busy to go yourself. Interns are not 'slave labor.' Make that assumption, and you'll probably end up with one big headache.

The best way to start your search for an intern is to define clearly what YOU need. For instance, if you have a small start-up company, and you need someone to set up your office administrative systems, you could look for a student majoring in office management or business. If your marketing department is losing its energy, and having trouble thinking of new ideas and creative ad campaigns, then an energetic marketing major might give your team some new life.

Internship Pros and Cons

If you're thinking about offering internship opportunities in your organization, then consider these positive and negative aspects of hiring an intern.

Pros

  • Interns are an inexpensive way to try out new talent – they often work for little or no money. If you like the work they do, you can always make them an offer of a permanent job.
  • Interns usually work very hard – they want an opportunity to show off their talent.
  • You can increase your department's productivity without hurting your budget, so you can probably get more work done for less money.
  • You have the satisfaction of knowing that you're really helping out young professionals by teaching them valuable skills, and getting them started in their careers.
  • If you bring in interns from college, they can bring new energy and a different attitude to your office. This may have a positive effect on your permanent staff.

Cons

  • Finding and training interns can be quite time-consuming.
  • If interns aren't already self-motivated, it can be difficult to keep them motivated to work hard.
  • Defining the roles of interns can be challenging. You don't want just to give them the tasks that no one else wants to do, or they're likely to become unmotivated and unhappy.
  • If interns' experiences are negative, they could potentially damage your company's reputation by complaining to their schools, classmates, and friends.

Recruiting Your Apprentice

If you think that finding an intern is right for you and your business, then you might wonder where to find a good one. Here are some tips:

  • Contact your local college or university. Many schools already have internship-matching programs in their career development offices. You could also go directly to the head of the department that's closely related to your industry. Faculties can often help you identify the best and brightest stars among their students.
  • Post the internship position on online job boards.
  • If your company is a member of a trade association or network, list your internship details with these – you may get some great referrals.
  • Hire a company that matches interns with businesses.

Training

Training an intern can be a time-consuming process. Unlike newly hired staff, interns often have little or no work experience. It's often the case, though, that what they lack in skill, they often make up for in enthusiasm and spirit.

Here are some ways to help your interns get started:

  • Create a specific job description – As we said earlier, make sure you give interns work that will help them learn your industry, and expand their skill sets. You can make the most of them by giving them projects they can put on their résumés.
  • Be clear about compensation – This can be tricky, because laws and expectations are different in each country. For example, some interns are paid a small wage, or at least have their expenses covered. Others work for free. And still others have to 'pay' for internships – if the work counts as college credit, then they pay their school tuition for what they're learning at your organization.

    Most experts recommend paying your interns, even if it's not very much. Studies show that paid interns usually perform better, and report higher satisfaction with their work experience. Unpaid interns are more commonly dissatisfied with their experience, and they can often feel that the company is taking advantage of them.

  • Establish the length of the internship – Be clear about how long the apprenticeship will last. Most internships last between two and six months.
  • Develop training goals – Interns won't be at your organization for very long, so it's vital to explain not only how to do tasks, but also why those tasks are important. You'll probably need to spend more time with interns than more established workers. It might be unrealistic to give interns a task, and expect them to understand it immediately without any guidance.

    Watch interns closely, however. Step in to help as soon as you think they're going in the wrong direction. And explain WHY you're stepping in. It's easy for interns to feel as though they're being criticized too much. However, if you simply explain that you want to make sure they're learning the right way to do something, they'll probably appreciate your honesty.

  • Know your labor laws – Each country has different laws about internships, so make sure you know your country's restrictions and requirements.

Motivating Your Intern

How do you motivate low-paid, or unpaid, interns? After all, you can't really offer them a bigger salary, better health benefits, or stock options.

Remember why interns are really there: TO LEARN. Giving them opportunities to learn, or projects that will look great on their résumés, can be a great way of motivating them. Ask them where they would derive the most value for their time spent with you, and seek to arrange a place on a project team in the areas that most interest and drive them.

Another way to keep interns motivated is to offer them time with key company leaders. After all, what intern wouldn't want to have lunch with someone high up in the business? Senior executives often get involved in mentoring schemes. And having that priceless time to ask questions can be a powerful reward for high-quality work.

If your company offers any training classes, allow your intern to go through those programs.

When It's Over

Many companies may offer their interns full-time jobs if their work was exceptional, and if the business is in a position to hire. This is one reason why competition is so strong for good assignments. If your intern was really fantastic, think about offering a permanent position – if appropriate.

If you don't have an open position or the funds to hire your interns, then write them great letters of recommendation. List details of what they accomplished during their time with you, and what you think their best strengths are. This letter is something they can use for future job searches, and they'll be grateful you took the time to help them in this way.

Key Points

Finding and training interns can be a lot of work. However, if you do it well, everyone can benefit. You might find your next superstar team member, and interns will learn valuable skills that will help them wherever they go next.

You'll probably need to spend more time with interns than your regular staff. Make sure you provide good training or on-the-job coaching, and keep them motivated with learning experiences. If you can, offer some kind of financial compensation.

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