Keys to a Successful Internship Program

An internship program adds a fresh perspective and boosts your company's productivity. Here's how to run one successfully.

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For small businesses, an internship program provides the opportunity to get fresh ideas and affordable talent — and potentially scope out future hires. Creating a successful intern experience requires work, including jumping through some legal hoops, choosing the right projects and ensuring you send interns back into the world as advocates for your business. Here are some key considerations for how to make your internship program run seamlessly.

Paid vs. Unpaid

Some employers offer an hourly wage to interns. Others pay students in college course credits by partnering with their college or university. Finally, some opt for the unpaid internship route, hiring interns in exchange for exposure and experience. Before deciding which direction to go in, make sure that you understand the applicable state, local and federal laws that govern internships. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) provides an excellent guide. When in doubt, pay your interns at least minimum wage or work through an established college or university internship program to minimize compliance risks.

Finding the Right Projects

Getting the most out of an internship starts with focusing on the right projects. An intern can help address a backlog project or streamline administrative work. Their day should include more than getting coffee and making copies. Instead, ask yourself how you can benefit from an intern's recent school work, technological expertise and energy. For example, an intern majoring in marketing might have recent analytics experience that could guide your social media strategy. Identify the most beneficial internship projects by asking these questions:

  • What unique skills or perspectives does the intern have that you can put to use?
  • What projects are important, but not urgent, and could benefit from a fresh perspective?
  • Does the project tie into your business objectives?
  • Do you have the necessary staff available to train and supervise the intern's progress?
  • Does the project offer something interesting to your intern — either in the form of valuable experience or a learning opportunity?

Helping Your Interns Thrive

Once they leave your company, your interns will be out in the world, talking about your brand — it's important that they have good things to say. What's more, they're also potential future employees or clients. Take the time to ensure your interns thrive with a few steps:

  • Get to know the intern's career goals and dedicate at least part of their internship to giving them experience in that area.
  • Assign a supervisor who can train the intern and help answer their questions.
  • Include them in your company's culture by taking them to lunch and inviting them to participate in meetings.
  • Ask your intern for their feedback and show them how their perspective has been helpful for your organization.
  • Make it a point to recognize an intern for their contributions and provide constructive feedback that helps them grow.

Interns can be a great addition to your team, but it's important to consider the intern's goals, as well as your own. Not only will you get a strong return for the time invested, but it's possible that this year's interns could turn into next year's most valuable hires.