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10 Tips for a Successful Internship Program

Many Benefits for Both Your Business and the Participants

A good internship program can benefit both the company and the participant. Students or recent graduates can gain valuable real-world experience and training, and already be on the job when an opening occurs. Businesses can be supported while growing a field of applicants for future openings.

Paid or Unpaid?
If this is a new program, first establish whether your interns will be paid or unpaid. The U.S. Department of Labor has outlined six criteria that must be met to establish that an intern qualifies to work unpaid, including providing training, having a program that benefits the intern, does not displace employees and has the intern work under supervision. The program should be structured to provide training and educational benefits to the participant, much like in school.

If an internship qualifies as a paid position, interns legally must be paid the federal minimum wage (at the very least) for the services they provide. They must also be paid overtime. Both regulations fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Employers should also be aware paid interns can file for unemployment, even if they’re hired only for a fixed period, and receive unemployment benefits after an internship ends. This pretty much killed the paid internship program at a company I managed, as students were collecting unemployment when they returned to college after their internship ended. Successful unemployment claims negatively affect an employer’s unemployment insurance tax rate.

How far in advance to recruit
Generally, an internship should be posted two months in advance of the expected start date, to allow time to recruit and sort through applicants.

Where to post internship opportunities
Internships can be included in all channels a company would typically post a job, including job boards like Indeed.com and on specialty sites like Internships.com, as well as through area schools. An article on the company website, blog and social media can offer more in-depth information on the opportunities.

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How to structure an internship program
Interns are often not with a company for more than a few months, so it pays to have a well-structured program. Follow these 10 tips for the best mutual benefit from introducing interns into your workplace.

1. Do a Needs Assessment
Create a simple email form to ask department heads if they want interns, how many and what tasks they will be asked to perform. Also determine what skill sets would be beneficial to the internship. This information can become the basis of a job description.

2. Job Description
Create a description of duties for the intern and a training plan of action. Include milestones to accomplish certain training goals. The intern packet should also include basic company information and policies. This should be provided in advance to the intern.

3. Ensure Good Program Management
If you don’t already have someone who manages interns, appoint an employee to be the Internship Liaison to mentor and monitor participant performance. This role could be filled later by a senior intern who has already completed the company training program, so the program does not create an extra burden on staff time.

4. Welcome Interns
Create a welcoming environment by sending out an email to staff announcing the new interns, with a brief description of their backgrounds. Have the Intern Liaison take the interns on a tour of the facility and introduce participants to team members they will be working with.

5. Reaffirm Expectations
Ask the Intern Liaison to discuss expectations and outcomes on both sides on the first day of the internship. Start each participant with small projects, graduating to more complex projects as the participants gain skills and knowledge.

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6. Place Where Needed Most
Though you cannot displace workers with interns, you can assign them to an area where you might be hiring in the future and test the waters. As employees leave for vacation, interns can relieve some of the workload of remaining staff, and gain experience by rotating through different departments.

7. Be Ready for Work
Ensure the intern has a desk or proper workspace and supplies so they can hit the ground running. Have senior interns train new interns before they leave, reducing staff time.

8. Review Performance
Keeping in mind that an internship program is intended to provide training, set bench marks for the participants to accomplish. Ask employees in the department they are working in to participate in evaluating the work of interns and provide helpful suggestions for further learning.

9. Give Perks to Unpaid Interns
Especially important for those not earning a wage, interns can be rewarded with a cafeteria pass or free food, given tickets to professional events and workshops, be compensated for gas or transportation costs, or given access to professional software. These perks are a good way to build good will and a positive reputation for an internship program.

10. Thank Them
Having an awards ceremony, with each successful participant receiving a certificate of appreciation, is very meaningful after months of low or unpaid compensation. It is a great time to show company appreciation. A letter of recommendation, if warranted, is also a positive asset to give an intern upon leaving.

Hosting interns is a way to provide a better trained workforce, while helping connect companies and candidates that could become future employees.

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