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HUMAN RESOURCES

How to Manage Interns

Properly managing an internship program can be highly beneficial both for you and for students looking to learn your trade, but handling it the wrong way can put you in hot water legally.

AP/Geoff Crimmins

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Once an optional stop on the career path, internships are increasingly becoming de rigeur for young people – often high school, undergraduate, and graduate students – looking for hands on experience in a wide range of fields. Internship programs can also be a great resource for companies, particularly start-ups that might not have the same type of talent draw as their larger counterparts.

However legal requirements, generation gaps, and different hiring criteria make managing interns a whole different animal than managing employees. These factors can make it tricky to launch an internship program without encountering problems. Here are some tips on how to structure a program and manage the interns to everyone's advantage.

How to Manage Interns: Know What You Want

When you decide to bring interns on board your company, you need to have a really clear vision of why you're creating the internship program. This will both allow you to gauge its success and keep you from inadvertently exploiting your interns. You need to ask yourself, am I starting an internship program "because [we're] shorthanded and want someone to do the scutwork around the office?" says Carroll Lachnit, the executive editor of Workforce Management, an Irvine, California-based HR magazine. If so, she continues, "that may turn out to be a really unpleasant internship experience for everyone."

Here are three things that internship programs can do for your company:

  • Human Resources Hack: "Internships are really cheap ways of interviewing people," says Jo-Ellen Pozner, an assistant professor of business management at the University of California, Berkeley. Hiring someone full-time and then discovering you've made an error can lead to costly payouts and lost time spent replacing the hire that didn't work out. The advantage of an internship program is, according to Pozner, "you can essentially use an internship as a 3-month job interview."

    If you have enough foresight, you can groom interns and later choose the most promising ones to help you meet needs and overcome obstacles that your company has yet to encounter. Lachnit says, "you'd have to look into the future of your organization a couple of years and say, 'okay a year from now, or two years from now, I'm going to have an entry-level position and I want to have this kind of person good to go for that job.'"
  • Breeding Brand Advocates: An internship program not only allows you to test for aptitude and cultural fit among the students who put in their time with you. It can also get the word out to your consumers and to other potential employees. Pozner notes that, "internship programs are wonderful marketing tools, particularly if the internship experience is managed properly." It also helps if your interns are of the same age and background as your target demographic.

    This word of mouth boost that originates with the interns' positive work experience can be particularly valuable to a start-up or another company that "doesn't really have the recruiting power that a Microsoft or a Google has, but they're great companies to work for," says Gagan Biyani, co-founder of StartupRoots, a non-profit that matches smart college students with up and coming companies. Biyani also has experience with managing interns at Udemy, the online teaching and learning start-up he runs while not working on StartupRoots.
  • Building Ties With Your Community: Starting an internship program can be a great way to give back to your local community by giving underprivileged students a chance to boost their career prospects and connections. Depending on your line of work, having a local community that has a positive impression of your business can make or break it. Additionally, even if you're too strapped for cash to hire the interns once they graduate, you can still keep in touch, and they may prove to be valuable contacts in your industry.

Despite all these potential advantages of an internship program, it's important to keep in mind that the program is supposed to be largely for the interns' advantage and edification. Lachnit says that if you take on an intern "with the expectation that this is going to save me some work, you're going to be profoundly disappointed."

Dig Deeper: A New Website Connects Small Businesses to Temporary Help


How to Manage Interns: What to Provide for Your Interns

The main thing interns should take away from an internship at your company is practical work experience that in some way matches their interests. Biyani sees internships as a supplement to the undergraduate education system, filling in the knowledge gaps by teaching tangible skills.

Recent graduates "don't know how to use Excel after they get out of college, they can hardly make a PowerPoint presentation," he says. "They sure as hell can't go in front of a large group of people and speak like you would at a company presentation." So Biyani grants interns at Udemy the freedom to choose tasks that interest them, such as public relations or business development, and take on projects that a larger company wouldn't risk turning over to somebody so green. In fields such as design or journalism, a courteous employer will give interns some opportunity to accumulate clips that they can show to future employers.

In addition to the on the job experience they receive, StartupRoots organizes mixers and educational talks by entrepreneurs for its interns. The Silicon Valley crowd schools the college students on learning from failure, developing a great product, and starting a company, among other things.

You should also give the interns the opportunity to acquire a variety of skills. "Keep an open mind about an intern's talents and abilities," recommends Cari Sommer, the co-founder of Urban Interns, a website that matches small businesses with interns and other part-time assistants. "You may have hired them for a specific function and be pleasantly surprised to learn that your intern actually has a great passion and ability in another area of your business."

But best of all, from the interns' perspective, if you don't have the means or the intention to hire any of your interns, you should at least connect some of the most promising candidates with colleagues in your field and help them find their footing after they conclude their internship.

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How to Manage Interns: Providing Mentorship and Advice

Even if you have a hands off management style, when you bring on interns, you have to make sure that they have at least one point person, if not more, that they can go to with their questions. "It's really wrong to strand an intern without someone who's invested in what they're doing for that time that they're with you," says Lachnit.

However, while there should be a minimum of one person who shows each intern the ropes, it's important for the interns to interact with people in many different branches of the company so they can acquire a variety of skills to match their interests. Biyani believes that "everybody should be involved in teaching the interns." At Udemy the interns have one core mentor but move around between advisors learning different skills. This has the added benefit of not burning anyone out.

Dig Deeper: Why Interns Are Good for Business


How to Manage Interns: Making the Time Commitment

It's important to make sure you understand how much time you will need to spend training and advising the intern, and that they understand how much time they will need to commit to your company. Biyani estimates that his staff spends, at the very least, 10 hours a week on providing guidance to each intern. Similarly, Lachnit estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of a mentor's time will be taken up with actively teaching the intern. In industries with highly specialized skill sets the training might be even more time consuming.

However, Biyani doesn't view that time as wasted. He sees it as an opportunity for his staff to gain fresh perspectives about their work and their company by bringing a new set of eyes to the matter.

The amount of time you can reasonably expect from your interns depends on a number of things, primarily what their duties are, whether the internship is during the school year, and whether they are receiving any compensation. There are no hard and fast rules but obviously if you aren't paying the interns, and if they are not living at home, you need to allow them sufficient time to work a part-time job above and beyond their commitments to you and to their schoolwork.

"They're [still] college students at the end of the day," Biyani says. "They have very, very demanding school and social lives and because of that, you have to provide them with the flexibility" to balance all those responsibilities. As a result, Udemy interns are allowed to work remotely.

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How to Manage Interns: Mind the Generation Gap

When you're infusing your company with young blood in the form of a new crop of interns, you have to consider what clashes might occur if you have a staff that's on the older side.

As Lachnit puts it, "if you're a middle-aged company and you're suddenly going to have a 19-year-old or 20-year-old in your midst are you ready for that?" Some issues that arise can include different perceptions of what is appropriate to wear to work, the role of technology in the workplace, and even what an intern's duties should look like.

According to Pozner, the millennial generation has higher expectations for how engaging the tasks they take on should be. By contrast, the generations that preceded them had the attitude that some degree of paying your dues was necessary in order to get ahead.

When it comes to technology, older managers could misinterpret social media sites that are being used for work purposes as goofing off. They might also be unsure about how to discipline the abuse of, or set down guidelines for the use of those services as well as texting and instant messenging. These differences in generational thinking don't mean you shouldn't bring on interns, they simply mean you should have policies in place to forestall potential culture clashes.

Dig Deeper: Technology Causing Generation Gap Within Family Businesses


How to Manage Interns: Avoiding a Legal Snafu

According to the Department of Labor, under the Fair Labor Standard Act, unpaid internships must meet all of the following six criteria. For more information on how this could impact your business, check out this article on what unpaid interns could cost you.

• The training interns get must be similar to what would be given in an educational or vocational academic setting.

• The internship should be focused on the benefits to the trainee.

• Interns cannot be replacing workers who are usually paid.

• The employer receives no immediate advantage from the trainees' activities, and the employer's operations may actually be impeded on occasion.

• At the end of the training, the trainees do not necessarily get hired.

• Both the company and the intern must understand that work is being done without pay.

In light of all this, it is advisable that companies compensate their interns if at all possible. At Udemy, interns sometimes get shifted to another responsibility or challenge if they or their mentor feels they have mastered the first one they have been assigned so that they continue to learn.

If interns need to be continuously learning on the job, that means you can't hire them based on their knowledge or skill set. Instead, Biyani looks for high energy levels, motivation, and a keen intellect.

The fourth criterion listed above might seem to be of the greatest concern to employers with internship programs. After all, even the most inept intern is likely to give the company some advantage or benefit. Consequently, Biyani interprets the rule in a less draconian fashion.

"Although everything that [the interns] do has to revolve around learning, we believe that the learning component goes hand in hand with providing value to the company," he says. "If you're not doing something that's providing value to the company, then you're doing something you could learn in business school, in the classroom.

Dig Deeper: How to Get the Most Out of Your Interns


How to Manage Interns: Resources

StartupRoots is a non-profit that places highly qualified college students in internship positions at small, innovative companies.

Workforce Management is a business magazine that reports on issues of interest to human resources professionals.

Urban Interns is a website that matches small businesses with interns and other part-time assistants. They let companies seeking interns choose from virtual, in-person, paid, unpaid, short-term, or ongoing internships.

Last updated: Apr 22, 2010




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