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Creating an Internship Program: A Guide

One of the challenges of building a successful business is finding the right people to help realize your vision. More than half of small business owners have difficulty hiring staff, and 27% still have vacant jobs after six months, according to a report by SCORE. An internship program can be a creative way to bring talent into the fold.

Let’s take a look at the benefits of welcoming an intern and how to start an internship program for your business.

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What’s an internship?

Internships are an opportunity for students and new graduates to gain work experience in a professional setting. Interns work under the supervision of a mentor and are paid except in very specific situations. The placements take place for a set period of time with an understanding by the employer and intern that there’s no guarantee of employment at the end of the program.

About 70% of interns receive a job offer from the company they’re placed with, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Nearly 80% of those receiving a job offer accept it, which translates into 56% of interns going on to become full-time employees.

Further, interns are likely to stay long-term with a company that’s helped nurture their skills. After one year, 71% of interns remain employed by the company, and after five years, nearly 44% are still on staff.

Should interns be paid?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, you can only bring on unpaid interns in certain situations. The internship has to be mainly educational and benefit the intern more than the company.

Nearly 61% of internships are paid, according to NACE, with an average wage of $19.05 per hour. Most unpaid internships are in the social services sector.

Besides meeting legal requirements, you’re more likely to attract qualified and motivated candidates by compensating your interns.

How internships can benefit a business

A great internship program takes a big commitment of time and resources to do well. Still, this investment can benefit companies of all sizes, including well-established businesses and start-ups. Here are some benefits to having an internship program.

Connect with undiscovered talent

Interns are usually eager for a chance to hone their skills and are highly motivated to learn. If you find the right candidate, you might train and discover the next marketing or finance whiz.

Pave the way for potential new employees

The internship period is an excellent opportunity to see if there’s a good fit between the intern’s skills and abilities and your company’s needs. The intern learns how your business operates, and you can get a sense of their potential without committing to a job. If you decide to offer a position, they should transition more easily into a permanent role.

Boost productivity

Task your interns with a project you haven’t had time to get off the ground, or helping an employee who’s dealing with a heavy workload. Be realistic with the amount and difficulty of the work you delegate, however. Start with simple tasks and add other responsibilities as the intern learns and shows an ability to get things done.

Benefit from fresh approaches

While internships are about giving new talent a chance to learn, you might also get some ideas on improving internal processes. Consider suggestions to hop onto a social media platform, add a feature to your website, or reach a new audience segment. Sometimes external points of view can spot opportunities you haven’t considered or had time to think about.

Give current employees a chance to be mentors

Internship programs can also benefit employees who are ready to step up their responsibilities. As mentors, they can apply their leadership and management skills and learn how to delegate, assess performance and offer guidance and feedback.

Benefits for the intern

Because of a lack of work experience, students and new graduates find it hard to break into a career. They may find themselves stuck in jobs with little responsibility or opportunity to advance.

Interns are often eager to bridge the gap between classroom knowledge and professional experience to show prospective employers what they can do. An internship allows them to:

  • Add experience to a resume
  • Gain insight into an industry or discipline
  • Apply skills to real-life situations
  • Build additional relevant skills
  • Develop a network of contacts
  • Confirm the career is a good fit
  • Identify further areas of interest
  • Potentially land a full-time job

Creating an internship program

Understand your legal obligations

In addition to following the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, you need to comply with state laws regarding interns. Check into legal obligations regarding minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, benefits and other terms of employment.

Determine the scope of the program

Get a sense of how an internship program could fit into your business structure by considering your needs, resources and budget. Some questions to consider are:

  • How many interns can you accommodate and how often?
  • Where will they work and who will supervise them?
  • What kind of work is available?
  • How much will they be compensated?
  • Do you have a preference for new graduates or students still in school?
  • How long will the internships last?

Designate an employee to oversee internships

There should be one employee coordinating the program and acting as the main contact for interns and inquiries. While they’re responsible for implementing the program, they may need additional support for supervising, training and mentoring.

Your internship coordinator should oversee all aspects of the program: recruiting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, supervising and evaluating performance.

Get the support of your staff

Bring your employees into the loop and explain the benefits of the internship program and what you hope to achieve. It’s important your staff understands why sharing their knowledge and expertise is important to both interns and the company in the long-term. Then, find out who’s willing to act as mentors or involve interns with their projects.

Start shaping the program

The details of the internship program should be formally documented on paper well before you begin recruiting interns. A clear understanding of how the program works is essential for maximizing everyone’s time. You don’t want an intern sitting around doing nothing or staff to be uncertain of their role.

When you’re designing the program, consider:

  • Goals and opportunities for learning
  • Qualities of an ideal candidate
  • Responsibilities of the intern and mentor/supervisor
  • Probation periods
  • How to track the intern’s progress
  • How often to schedule meetings with the intern to provide feedback
  • Questions for the exit interview

Assign duties to the intern

Many small businesses have plenty of work that needs to be done, and some of it may be menial. While you may need interns to pitch in on basic duties, be sure to provide lots of opportunities to take on challenging and rewarding work.

The goal of an internship is to help develop marketable skills that can be added to the intern’s resume, so let your intern shine. It’s also hard to judge whether an intern may make a good long-term employee unless they have a chance to step up and do the work that’s needed.

Create an internship job description

The first step to finding the right interns for your business is to outline your requirements. Begin by writing a job posting that includes basic details such as dates of the internship, compensation and hours required.

Then, write a job description that clearly indicates the scope of the role. Outline the responsibilities of the intern, whether it’s assisting staff with their duties or helping on special projects. If you plan on placing interns in several departments, you should customize the job descriptions to reflect different duties.

Include a section in the internship job posting on the qualities and skills you’re looking for in a candidate. Then, provide an overview of the application process and whether they should submit a cover letter, resume or additional information.

Prepare to implement the program

Before you publicly announce the internships, you need to nail down how you’re going to run the program.

  • What is the recruitment and hiring process? Decide how you’re going to reach candidates and what’s involved at the interview stage.
  • What information does the intern need during onboarding? Make a list of documents, handbooks and resources, and consider which staff members need to be involved on the first day.
  • Are there specific training requirements? If you have accounting systems and databases that the intern must use, set aside time for someone to train them.

How to implement an internship program

Distribute information about your program

Begin recruiting several months before you want the internship to start, particularly if you’re looking for someone to start at the end of a school year. Many students begin making plans as early as possible.

  • Post the internship on job boards
  • Send information to career centers at local colleges and universities
  • Ask specific departments or faculty to distribute information to students or post on their bulletin boards
  • Add the job posting to your company website

Conduct interviews and select candidates

Even though interns are only with your company on a temporary basis, be as selective as you would be when hiring an employee. The more capable an intern is, the more your company benefits.

Once you’ve shortlisted candidates, schedule interviews. Ask questions that help you assess interpersonal skills, enthusiasm and interest in the field. Look for motivated interns that can take the initiative.

When you’ve hired the perfect candidate and they’ve accepted the offer, send them a welcome email to confirm the internship and detail next steps. You should also send an email announcement to all staff letting them know about the intern and the expected start date.

Arrange onboarding and orientation

The first few days of the internship should be dedicated to getting the intern oriented to your business operations. Make sure to schedule time for:

  • Completing paperwork with HR
  • Going over company policies and procedures
  • Introducing their mentor and other staff
  • Setting up email, accounts and passwords
  • Learning about the organization, products and services
  • Reviewing duties and job responsibilities
  • Touring the office and facilities
  • Training on software and programs

Don’t forget to cover little things, like using the kitchen, where to find office supplies, and who they need to inform when they take a lunch break.

Provide opportunities to learn

Give your interns plenty of chances to learn. Not only does it benefit them personally, but it can help groom them for a full-time position. They’re also more likely to accept a job offer if you create a supportive environment that facilitates growth.

Some of the learning opportunities to consider include:

  • Rotating through departments to get the big picture
  • Shadowing senior executives for a day
  • Sitting in on meetings
  • Participating in training programs, workshops and conferences alongside staff
  • Spending time with managers to ask questions
  • Taking on small projects independently

Meet with your intern regularly

Make sure your intern has a scheduled time to sit down regularly with a supervisor or mentor. They should provide a report on what they’re working on and their accomplishments so you can determine if they’re meeting their goals. It’s also a good opportunity to assess workload and provide constructive feedback.

Some interns may not feel comfortable making requests and bringing up problems. A regular meeting gives you a chance to answer questions and get a sense of difficulties they’re encountering.

Conduct an exit interview

Before the internship comes to an official end, ask the intern about their experiences so you know how the program is working. Be open to constructive criticism so that you can improve the internships in the future.

  • Were they given an opportunity to learn?
  • Which responsibilities and projects were most helpful?
  • Did they feel challenged?
  • Were staff willing to help them?
  • What are they taking away from the program?
  • How would they improve the program?

You can also offer feedback about their strengths and weaknesses, developing additional skills, and tackling the next stage of their career.

Incorporate feedback

When the internship program is complete, ask employees about any positive or negative impact the program had on their workloads. Once you’ve considered feedback from the interns and your staff, incorporate appropriate changes so the program runs even more smoothly next time.

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