How to hire interns the right way

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How to hire interns the right way

Our blog How to hire interns the right way
How to hire interns

Today most major companies offer an internship program to rising or recent graduates. Some interns will prove to be sound hires, while others may ultimately slow you down, but there are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to hiring an intern. In this article, we'll walk you through how to hire an intern the right way.

What is an internship?

An internship is a short-term working agreement between a company and most typically a college student, recent graduate, or entry-level professional. Interns are typically paid at a lower rate than employees and, in some circumstances, they aren't paid at all.

But an internship shouldn't just be an opportunity to get cheap labor. Whether you offer an unpaid internship or you compensate your interns, the exchange should be mutually beneficial for both parties. Your interns can receive benefits like real-world experience, a recommendation for future jobs if warranted, college credit, and other benefits.

What are the benefits and disadvantages of internship programs?

There are pros and cons to consider before you start an internship program. In the pros column, your company will get additional help, make connections with rising talent, and potentially find people who you want to hire full-time.

But you may also find that interns can take up a lot of your time because they'll need more direction and you'll need to put in some work to make sure they're getting something about of the program.

The benefits of an internship program

There are plenty of upsides to hiring green talent to the team. 

First, they are often eager and itching to dive into projects related to their field of study. They bring a fresh, updated perspective to meetings and brainstorms, and if they're a good fit, they'll be willing to go the extra mile. This enthusiasm can alleviate the workload of a full-time employee working on more pressing issues.

Next, interns can help reduce the cost of hiring and recruitment demands for the internal team. Should the intern be a culture add and thoughtful hire, the company may extend a full-time job offer to the intern. If accepted, not only did the team not need to look outside the company for great talent, but they've reduced costs in the inevitable ramp-up stage that comes with taking on a new role or starting at a new company.

Finally, hosting an internship program at your company allows extended leadership opportunities to those existing employees ready for the next level of responsibility at work. If appointed to be an internship mentor, the established employee and professional can mentor the intern and flex their muscles as a people manager. 

The disadvantages of an internship program

While there are benefits to an internship program, it comes with some costs and risks as well. Of course, you expect that the interns you hire will be new to the business world. However, some could be even more inexperienced than you bargained for. Instead of the intern being extra help around the office, some may need more hand-holding, which can hurt the productivity of your employees.

Another issue is that some interns may lack the maturity needed in a professional setting. This also hurts productivity.

You could also find yourself in a situation where you don't have enough relevant work for them to do. Although interns sometimes expect the worst (getting coffee and doing data entry), you should really work to give them tasks that will help them in their chosen field of work.

You'll also need to consider the legal ramifications of running an internship program. There are a lot of legal questions surrounding internships and, if you don't have a legal team, you might not want to take on the risk.

Defining a beneficial intern program

If and when you decide that an internship program makes sense for your company, it's time to develop a thoughtful program that both the company and the intern will appreciate. 

First, determine what onboarding will look like at your company. Onboarding interns can prove tricky, especially as laws and regulations differ from region to region and if your program is being hosted remotely. In order to make the most out of the interns time, plan out the technology, first day meetings, client projects, and HR paperwork that will be necessary.

Additionally, be sure you're updated on any school credit regulations as some interns may need this to graduate from their college or university.

Once logistics are ironed out, you'll need to determine what projects your intern(s) will be working on. Do you want them to handle any client-related work or simply stick with more administrative duties? When deciding, considering the following:

  • How does task or project this relate to the industry they want to break into?
  • How will this project or responsibility save the company time and/or money? 
  • Who will train the intern on how to do this?
  • How will we keep the intern engaged?

Finally, consider appointing an internship leader or mentor for the program. As we intimated earlier, a mentor doesn't need to be a senior manager within the company. Instead, this can be a mid-level manager who is gunning for a promotion but lacks the leadership experience. Regardless of who or how you decide internship leaders, it will be important to develop guidelines and best practices to ensure a pleasant experience for all parties.

Finding interns

After developing a solid internship plan, it's time to start recruiting talent. Finding interns is similar to sourcing candidates for other internal roles; it requires diligence, intentionality, and patience. You can start with your team's internal network and ask if anyone has a connection to a brilliant young professional or college student. 

When it's time to branch outside of your personal networks and connections, leveraging college and university relationships are a good place to look. By reaching out to local schools' career centers and individual educators you can develop a relationship with local schools and universities. When connected, you can ask for an opportunity to speak at school, attend job and internship fairs, and keep yourself in proximity to rising talent. 

When you begin putting together the job description and conduct interviews, be careful to set the right expectations. If you're looking for a graphic design intern, be sure to list the software and programs they should already be trained in, as well as what programs they will be learning during the internship.

Also, give potential interns an idea of what their day-to-day will look like so they know what to expect. It's easier to accept boring administrative work if it doesn't feel like a bait and switch.

And remember, just because interns lack experience doesn't mean skills tests are unnecessary during the interview process. To use the example above, administering a graphic design test or asking the candidate to submit a project will assess their skill level, what they (and if they) can be most helpful, and compare them to other candidates.

How to test the skills of your internship candidates

You can avoid many of the issues surrounding internship programs by ensuring that you only accept interns with the right skills to be successful. We've tried to make that easy for you by working with subject matter experts to develop tests that will help you determine which candidates have what it takes to be great interns.

7 skills to look for when hiring interns

Obviously you can't expect the people applying for your internship to be sales aces, Excel wizards, or anything like that, but you can test them on things like cognitive abilities. Testing for the following skills will improve your chances of hiring a great intern.

Hiring interns

  • Attention to detail. If you want to hire interns who you can trust not to make mistakes, this test identifies candidates who can thoroughly and carefully handle intricate processes using analytical skills. It tests skills like matching information, filtering information, comparing statements for differences, and checking the consistency of information.
  • Communication. A good intern will almost always need to be a good communicator because, at the very least, they'll need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively with other members of your staff. The test will help you hire interns with good communication skills by assessing candidates on written and verbal communication, non-verbal cues, and active listening.
  • Time management. In order to find an intern who can complete tasks in a timely manner without too much supervision, you'll want to look for candidates with time management skills. This test uses typical workplace scenarios to assess how well a candidate can prioritize, plan, execute, and reflect on tasks and projects.
  • Critical thinking. This test could also be called the common sense test, although it's more complicated than that. It will help you identify candidates who can evaluate information and make sound judgments using analytical skills.
  • Problem solving. You'll want to hire an intern who can be self-sufficient when needed. This means they will need to have the ability to solve problems on their own without a lot of handholding. This test evaluates a candidate's ability to define problems and analyze data and textual information to make correct decisions so that you can find an intern who won't be knocking on your door every five minutes with a question they should be able to answer on their own.
  • Software skills. While you're probably not going to find many people applying for internships who have Salesforce experience, you can look for candidates with a firm grasp of software like Excel, Word, Windows, Outlook, PowerPoint, Photoshop, or Gmail.
  • Culture add. As with any hire, it's important to determine how a candidate’s values, behaviors, and interests align with your company values and the behaviors and activities that would make an intern successful. This test will help you maintain a strong culture as you begin to bring on interns.

Be sure to check your local laws and legislation as the rules for internship programs can vary based on where your company does business.

And federal guidelines also apply, like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This is particularly important when it comes to unpaid internships. You may think you've hired an intern, but depending on several factors your "intern" may actually be an employee.

Genrally, courts use the "primary beneficiary test" to determine whether your new hire is an employee or an intern. The test looks at the following seven factors:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Unpaid internship

Logging hours may come into play with an internship program. If your intern will need to track, record, and log their hours to receive their compensation or college credit, be sure to have a system in place to make this hassle-free. 

Also, be incredibly mindful of the proprietary information you share with your interns. Remember to have them sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) if they have access to any client files or sealed information.

Finally, the conversation of company property can be a tougher topic to navigate than expected. Determine if interns will need to supply their laptop or other work-related accessories or programming. Keeping with the graphic design example, will you be purchasing Adobe programs for the intern or being responsible for having their programs and laptop. These are details to have ironed out before the interview process.

Set expectations and be prepared

If you're ready to launch an internship program, make sure to be aware of and plan for the advantages, disadvantages, risks, and rewards, so that you and your intern will get the most out of the experience. If everyone knows what to expect and is prepared, your program is likely to be a success.

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