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Get More from Your Interns: 5 Ideas That Really Work

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. And wrong, in that getting someone to do work for free when that position would otherwise require the services of a paid employee, often violates federal and state laws.

Indeed, many states are looking increasingly skeptically of unpaid internships, considering them to be a violation of minimum wage laws. So be careful and speak with a lawyer to make sure you are doing it right.

Bringing in interns will probably be more work than you expect but should be worth it if you do it right…

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 if it is legal and is for experience or class credit – often do a poor job and/or may 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.

How to Create an Internship Program the Right Way

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, 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 Foundation 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 that line very carefully.

Bottom line: Bringing in interns will probably be more work than you expect but should be worth it if you do it legally and treat them right.

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About Steve Strauss

Senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible, Steve is your host here at TheSelfEmployed.com.


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