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    Create a Meaningful Internship Program in 3 Easy Steps
    The Vault

    Create a Meaningful Internship Program in 3 Easy Steps

    September 2016

    At some point this fall, as college students across the country head back to school, you may consider adding an internship program to your company.  It’s a great idea, and one we employ ourselves.  Interns can be an incredible resource to small businesses -- smart, enthusiastic, eager to assist -- at relatively low cost.  They are great at tackling big projects and mastering new technologies, and make excellent candidates when they’re ready for full-time employment.  Provided you give them the opportunity to do meaningful work, they’ll want to come back to you.  You both win in the long run.

    Creating a meaningful internship requires some true up-front work on your part, but it’s the key to creating a successful experience.  Here are three steps to creating an internship that benefits you and your interns.

    1. Create a job description.

    It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many companies bring in interns without any real specifics on what they’ll do.  You absolutely must start with a job description.  Answer the following questions:

    • What exactly will the intern be responsible for?
    • How long will the internship last?
    • How many hours will the intern be required to work weekly?
    • Who will the intern report to?
    • How will the intern be evaluated?
    • What experience are you, the business owner, offering the candidate?
    • What experience, if any, do interns need to bring to you?

    Be specific from the beginning to avoid misunderstandings down the road.  

    When designing intern duties, focus on your responsibility as the intern’s mentor.  Put yourself in the position of being a supportive, guiding presence who offers a valuable experience, not a taskmaster looking for cheap labor to do grunt work.  

    1. Search the right places.

    Finding the right intern for the job is critical, so make sure you’re looking in “quality” places. Here are a few suggestions:

    • Local universities

    Career counseling centers at your local community colleges and universities are fantastic resources.  Though they typically require you to update them on the student’s progress (the student will likely receive college credit by obtaining internships through the university), they’ll continue to send you quality interns year after year provided your internship is worthwhile.  Again, a bit of set-up goes a long way.  

    • Social Media

    Send out a Tweet or post to Facebook or LinkedIn that your company is looking for interns. This way, you gather responses from clients, customers, and other people who are already interested in and familiar with your company.

    • Career websites

    Websites like Glassdoor can help you find interns through a database of candidates, which is a good way to approach career websites.  I’m not a huge fan of posting “help wanted” ads on career websites in general, because you end up with an excessive number of applications to review (many of them complete junk).  If you utilize career websites, stick to searching for your candidates, rather than welcoming applications.

    1.  Make it legal.

    Many legitimate internships are unpaid, and that’s okay as long as you don’t run afoul of the law.  The U.S. Department of Labor has developed a six-part test surrounding unpaid internships. Briefly summarized:

    • The work experience is intended to benefit the student; not the employer.
    • Interns should do work that is similar to the training they’re receiving at school.They may even receive class credit for their work with you.
    • The employer should have no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities—their training could actually impede your workflow occasionally.
    • The intern is not replacing an actual employee, and your employees closely supervise the student. The mentoring should be constructive and educational.
    • There’s no agreement or promise of employment before or during the internship (of course, you can hire them afterward if they wow you).
    • Both the employer and employee understand that no wages will be paid during the training period.  (Hint: Get this in writing.)

    You can run into some major legal troubles if your unpaid internship doesn’t meet this guidelines, so be sure you’re in compliance.

    If your internship is paid, you’ll have to abide by laws set in place for temporary or seasonal workers before you hire any interns. You will need to complete IRS payroll forms and any other required employment forms.  Seasonal and temporary workers are “new employees” and require the same HR protocols as workers you expect to stay indefinitely.

    Remember, if your intern enjoys the position and performs the job well, you may have found a future employee -- one who is already familiar with your company and its procedures, and is ready to work.  Put in the effort today to create an internship program that will benefit you both in the long run.

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