College interns can be great contributors to your small business, provided you take the right approach and have realistic expectations. I’ve hired and worked with interns in numerous roles, and several of them have made lasting contributions and eventually earned permanent positions on the team—a win for both the intern and the business.
I’ve also seen internships fall flat for both the intern and the business.
Let me share with you six things I’ve learned that will help you make the most out of hiring a college intern—so both the intern and your business win.
- Internships are intended to be learning opportunities for the intern. As you consider the option of hiring an intern, think about what you can offer them in terms of learning opportunities as well as the value you hope they can add to your business. To attract the best students, you’ll want to give them opportunities to contribute to projects that will enhance their educational experience. They are likely interested in your internship because it gives them an opportunity to practically apply what they’re learning in school and gain experience that will help them build a strong resume.
- Be prepared to invest some time in training. I found the best success with interns when I treated them the same way I would treat any new employee. The time spent helping them understand the way we did business and why (making it an educational process for them), helped them fit in with the rest of the team and make meaningful contributions to my objectives.
- Give them something meaningful to do. I needed the interns I worked with to provide value for what I was paying them, so I looked at their experience and gave them impactful projects to work on—projects for which they had the general skills to accomplish—knowing I would spend some time training them specifically. Most people want to contribute to something bigger than themselves; interns are no different. If they feel like the work you’ve given them isn’t meaningful, they will become frustrated and disengage. On the other hand, if they are engaged in what they’re doing, they may add a perspective to your business you might not otherwise capture.
- Make them a part of the team. Although their internship might only be temporary, participating with others on the team helps foster a sense of ownership in their role and gives them the opportunity to see how colleagues work together in the real world. If you have regular team meetings, encourage them to join and participate. When you ask for input, suggestions, or other comments from you employees, encourage your intern to speak up too. Treat them like you would any other employee, because if they do a great job for you, and they’re interested, you might decide to offer them a job. I’ve even discovered an employee or two this way.
- Pay them. I’m not a fan of free internships. It sets the intern up for a poor experience, and it’s unlikely you’ll find the best candidates. Big companies can sometimes get away with it because it will look good on a resume, but smaller businesses don’t have the same clout on a resume. And, because we tend to value what we pay for, even if it’s a little less than market value, we’ll tend to take the first four suggestions more seriously.
- Be flexible. It might be a little easier when hiring a summer intern who is available full-time, but if you’re bringing on an intern during a semester when school is in session, try to be flexible with their schedule. Your intern will appreciate it and you’ll get their best work. I always felt like their classwork was every bit as important as what they were doing for me, and when I was flexible with them, they made an extra effort to accommodate the time I needed from them every week.
I’ve found internships to be valuable to help advance new projects, and interns inject a new perspective into projects without hiring another full-time employee. Many small businesses can leverage a healthy internship program that is a win for both the intern and the company, provided they take the steps to consider both perspectives. What’s more, interns typically rate their experience at your company, so if all you have them do are the jobs nobody else wants to do, you’re not likely to receive too many applications the next time around.