Internships are a win-win in business. An internship acts as an opportunity for a student to get real-world business experience and learn more about their chosen field. For the business, the intern acts as a cheap source of labor for a period of time. As long as you are willing to invest time to teach the intern something valuable as they work, it is a great experience for everyone involved, and the intern may even earn college credit at the same time.
If you are interested in bringing an intern on board at your small business, there are many opportunities to do so. But don’t just rush to hire an intern, complex state and local laws mean you have some due diligence to do before getting started. Follow these steps to hire an intern the right way for a successful experience.
Decide What You Want the Intern to Do
If you are considering hiring an intern for your business, start by considering what they would do for your business, what their work schedule would look like, and how they would benefit from the internship.
Contrary to the belief of some, internships are not just about getting cheap or free labor. They are primarily about teaching the intern about the business environment, interacting with colleagues and superiors, learning how business models work, and giving the intern real-world experience they can use to succeed in their education and career. If you are solely looking for cheap workers to do menial tasks, hire a regular worker at minimum wage. If you are willing to invest in the intern to build a successful relationship, you are in the right frame of mind to hire an intern.
Spend a few minutes mapping out an ideal internship experience with your small business. List out tasks that they could perform. Some can be monotonous, but it shouldn’t be the entire intern experience. If you have enough meaningful projects for a 10-20 hour per week schedule, you are in the sweet spot for a part-time intern.
Consult Local Laws
Before you start down the path of finding an intern for your small business, review local laws and regulations regarding internships to ensure you stay on the right side of the law. Every state and city has its own labor laws, and following labor laws is imperative for any business.
Some jurisdictions do not allow unpaid internships, some allow unpaid internships but only for college credit, and others require paying an intern regardless. This article from the Department of Labor explains Federal guidelines. Be sure to review the six-part test for unpaid internships if you plan to hire an unpaid intern.
Much of the legal gray area around internships comes from unpaid and work-for-credit arrangements. If you are willing to pay at least minimum wage, you have little to worry about. And you are likely to get a lot more value than a minimum wage worker from your internship, so unless finances are tight it is better to pay an intern for the work they do for your business.
Reach Out to Local Universities & Colleges
Now that you have a plan for an intern and know relevant laws and regulations, it is time to find the perfect match. Start by reaching out to local universities and colleges. Odds are a department office or career center have connections to the perfect student for your internship.
Career offices and department leaders are more valuable than just finding the intern. They are another resource that can ensure you follow local internship regulations, build a plan for your internship, and help you understand the best way to structure the internship to benefit both the student and your business.
If you require very specific skills, reach out directly to someone from that department. For example, any STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills are more specialized, and a department chair or professor may be willing to give your internship a little help finding the right students to interview. They can also be great connections for you and your business for the long-term, so focus on building strong relationships here as well.
Create an Internship Work Plan & Expectations
Either with the assistance of your new friends at the local school, with existing employees, or on your own, create a full work plan for the internship. Clearly list goals, timelines, expectations, pay, and other details in this document.
Your internship plan can be a simple one-page overview or a detailed explanation of how your new intern fits into your business and organization. By clearly outlining goals and expectations, you can avoid misconceptions, miscommunications, and vagueness when starting your work together.
Keep in mind that many interns have never had a grown-up job. They are less experienced, mature, and knowledgeable. If you communicate consistently and clearly, you have little to worry about.
Interview Potential Interns
Now you are ready to start meeting with potential interns. It is best if you can interview at least a few possible matches before making a final decision. Even if your first interview blows you away, it is best to have a few data points to compare.
Prepare a list of questions ahead of time. Focus your questions on abilities, interests, and experience. Remember to follow interviewing and hiring laws for your internship just as you would any regular employee.
Choosing the best applicant is up to you. Go with your gut, but remember to put the needs of the business first. Don’t pick someone just because you like them more of they have the same favorite football team. Choose the best fit based on their education, experience, and qualifications.
Work Together for a Win-Win
Just because the internship should focus on the student first does not mean the business does not gain from the experience. Students and recent grads make great workers. They are excited, energetic, and looking to make a difference. If you can offer an opportunity to do so in your organization, your time and money investment in an intern will pay you back multiple times over.
This article was originally written on September 25, 2017 and updated on January 31, 2021.