Hiring the right intern will increase your company's productivity at little to no cost—and, with proper planning, it won't take an undue amount of management's limited time. "There's so much that small businesses can get out of a structured intern program," says Lauren Berger, known as the Intern Queen, who runs an online internship destination and is the author of All Work, No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building Your Resume, Making Connections, and Gaining Job Experience. "Often, business owners use the fact that they're small as a reason they can't have a systematic approach to finding, hiring, and training interns, but that reasoning couldn't be more wrong," she says. "Time is a business owner's most precious commodity, and an efficient internship program helps you use it well." Here, Bergen offers tips on how to do that.
Q. What are some practical tasks an intern can perform for a small business?
A. It's okay if an internship includes some mindless tasks, such as making copies. Students need to understand that people do start at the bottom and work their way up. However, in order to get the best talent, you are also going to want to provide worthwhile experiences that will benefit a future career.
Some good tasks for interns include organizing company databases, perhaps generating charts or graphs that owners haven't had time to get to. Interns can be great at helping to organize and manage events. They often work on social media—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—because this can be a time-consuming job and companies often haven't properly integrated them into the business.
An intern can do long-term research projects on industry trends, and check out what competitors are doing on social media. I also advise businesses to have interns sit in on company meetings and brainstorming sessions, because they are coming into the business with a fresh perspective.
Then create a list of approved intern tasks, with no gray areas. The U.S. Department of Labor has a fact sheet on its website that specifies how the Fair Labor Standards Act applies to intern activities.
Q. Where does a company find good interns?
A. There are a number of online internship sites and job-posting resources. You will also want to get in touch with local colleges and high schools. We're seeing a big focus on internships in high-school guidance departments across the country. High-school interns are great because they're very reliable—their parents drop them off on time!
Q. How should an intern's job be structured?
A. First, have a clear timetable for when applications are due and when interns will be selected. Some owners accept interns on a rolling basis, but that causes you to waste a lot of time training new interns.
You want clear start and end dates. Without those, the lines get blurred–is this person an intern, or an employee? In general, an internship lasts only one semester or summer. The only reason it would be acceptable to extend it would be if the intern has a very clear new set of learning objectives.
Be sure to prepare a list of ongoing projects an intern can work on when there's downtime. An intern should check in once in the morning to get tasks, and have what he or she needs to navigate through the rest of the workday.
Of course, the intern can check with you if issues arise. But the last thing you want is someone who's coming to your desk every five minutes saying, "I'm finished, what's next?"
Creating a structured, beneficial program helps a small business shift perspective. Yes, a company should absolutely be getting help in the short term—but it should also be looking at an internship program as a chance to test out possible future employees.
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