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Here's the Skinny on Starting an Internship Program

The top ten categories for internships are business operations, marketing, engineering, sales/business development, media/communications/public relations, data analytics, finance, information technology development (IT), arts and design, and project management.

Keyboard with an "Internship" buttonHow many of them will be successful, from the perspective of the employer — and the intern? The answer depends on how many employers think through what they want their interns to accomplish, and how much effort they're willing to put into managing them.

The biggest mistake employers can make in bringing interns on board is to regard them merely as an inexpensive source of labor, worthy only of performing menial tasks to give a break to full-time staff. With that approach, not only will you have a disgruntled intern on your hands — who may leave you early — but you miss out on the chance to develop a potentially valuable new-hire down the road.

Not Your Personal Assistant

"Interns are there to learn about your business, not to replace your personal assistant," advises one internship placement service.

It might be better to think of internships as a way to keep your talent pipeline flowing, or a no-fault audition for future employment.

Also, when interns are given the opportunity to learn how to do meaningful jobs, important tasks are accomplished that might otherwise have to be put off. You probably have potentially valuable, but non-urgent, jobs that nobody seems to have time to do. Often, it could be a research project that a smart intern could easily complete.

When an internship is structured to provide "meaningful" work (and it's promoted that way), you'll have a lot more highly qualified prospects knocking at your door. Also, keep in mind that students sometimes have more current technical skills in certain areas, such as computer applications and social media, than others who have been out of school for several years or more.

Getting the most out of an internship program requires identifying areas of need by surveying department managers, and then creating a job description. It also requires assigning responsibility for supervising the intern, ideally to a relatively junior (but well-regarded) manager with whom the intern will feel comfortable.

A common approach to internship design, particularly in smaller organizations, is creating a "rotating internship." Structuring the program to move the intern between multiple departments can be an efficient way of filling manpower gaps caused by summer vacation schedules. It also allows the intern to gain a greater variety of experience — something interns generally seek.

What Attracts Interns

Here are some more features that prospective interns say are important to them:

  • A clear job description that lets them know, in advance, what they will be doing, as a way to seek a good fit before coming on board,
  • Meaningful work — even if a few unglamorous clerical tasks are assigned from time to time,
  • The chance to be a bona fide team member allowed to participate in relevant staff meetings,
  • Regular feedback and access to supervisors for guidance and mentoring, and
  • Reasonable compensation.

Yes, compensation. While interns generally aren't expecting high pay, few will work for free. In fact, it may not even be legal to not pay an intern anything below minimum wage. In a for-profit setting, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) generally applies to interns. There are some exceptions, however.

Free Labor?

"The determination of whether an internship or training program meets the exclusion depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each such program," says the Labor Department (DOL). Here are six criteria the DOL uses in making the determination. The more of these points that apply, the stronger the case for exemption from the FLSA:

  1. The internship, even though it includes work in the actual facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern doesn't displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern isn't necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern isn't entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

However, even if you might not be obligated to satisfy the same standards applicable to regular employees, consider that you might be limiting your pool of applicants by seeking only volunteers. And, if you run the program well, you'll probably get more than your money's worth.

How do you find qualified candidates? A basic web search using the phrase "how to find summer interns" yields links both to job matching services specializing in internships, as well as the top general job boards that post internship positions.

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