Improving Your Internship Program

Based on all the buzz around OEN’s upcoming Internship Workshop, it seems like companies are reevaluating the value and purpose of internships. Young business owners who have gone on to bury unsatisfactory internships under a mountain of career achievements seem determined not to relegate stereotypically negative interning experiences to junior and senior college students a few years behind them. This increased awareness of the need to develop more meaningful intern programs is a good start, but companies need to make sure that their good intentions translate to action. Here are a few of our suggestions. 

Pay your interns. Companies are able to choose interns from a large, enthusiastic pool of students, graduates, and young professionals trying out a new career. But interns are not free labor, and confusing the two can mean legal trouble for your business. If your company is benefiting from the work your interns are producing, your interns should be receiving a paycheck according to these U.S. Department of Labor criteria. By agreeing to pay interns, you’re putting additional pressure on them to prove their worth, and these days so few young people have the luxury of accepting an unpaid internship, regardless of how great the opportunity is.

Teach your interns. Give interns a quick lesson in your company architecture and objectives. Providing this education to them at the beginning of the internship provides them with a greater understanding of how your company functions, what their place is in the company, and how their work contributes to the business. You’re going to receive completed work that is more aligned to your specific business needs if your interns know exactly what they need to do to get the job done.

Have specific projects for your interns. Even the most self-starting intern is going to be frustrated with the task of having to invent their own productive workday schedule. Lacking the business foresight of a veteran employee, when left to their own devices interns may unintentionally gravitate towards work that is unnecessary. Prevent this by having specific, well-defined tasks laid out for your interns to do. Once they’ve knocked a few of these projects out of the park, you can slowly begin to introduce work that requires a higher level of independent thinking.

Include your interns. Keeping interns secluded or treating them like second-class citizens within your company hurts everyone. Being in the dark about basic business functions or unaware of the key conversations going on in your company will inhibit the depth of their insights and likely detract from the relevance of their projects. When your interns speak up at meetings, be receptive to their ideas. They’re approaching the opportunity as a learning experience, and living up to their expectations in that regard will keep them motivated to live up to yours. Additionally, having a fully-integrated intern gives you a valuable opportunity to learn about how your company is perceived by viewing it through an intelligent, fresh pair of young eyes.

Be flexible. Giving your interns some flexibility is important, especially if you’re hiring students. Unless the internship is an explicitly intensive, full-time gig, the chance that your intern is working a second job, or taking classes on the side are pretty high. Be open to the idea of partial telecommuting or only coming into the office for special meetings, and be understanding when faced with scheduling conflicts or the rare double-booking.

Give feedback, get feedback. Strong, silent type employers can be confusing and frustrating to interns. Providing regular, targeted feedback allows interns to adjust their performance and will result in better, more valuable work. Inversely, be sure your door is always open for interns with inquiries or suggestions about their experience interning with your company.

What golden rules do you follow when employing interns? What benefits, if any, did employing interns have on your company? Answer these questions, or submit other intern-related thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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