Remember when you were in college and couldn’t wait to get some work experience out in the so-called “real world”? Well, there’s a current crop of college students who feel the same way, and when utilized correctly, they can be a big help to your small business.
Contrary to what you might think, college interns aren’t just for Fortune 500 companies. Whether for the summer or during the fall and spring semesters, hiring an intern enables you to influence the next generation of professionals that will soon be out in the workforce—and gives you valuable insights from young, enthusiastic men and women who are interested in your industry. In fact, in a survey of their members, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that employers last year planned on hiring 8.5 percent more college students for internships than they did the prior year.
Before you rush out to your local college or trade school to find students to hire, however, there are some basics do's and don'ts of internships that are important to understand. Some are simple common sense, but others, if violated, could run afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Define the job
The first thing to understand is that these opportunities are more for the benefit of the college student than your small business. Think of internships as a smart way for you to take your experience and success and pay it forward. That's not to say, however, that there can't be an upside for your company.
That's why it's important to take the time to define what you really expect from any intern you bring in—the same as you would a full-time employee. Decide on the job functions, how he or she will benefit from the internship, and who will supervise the intern.
Crissy Koehler, vice president of sales and marketing for Parties That Cook, a San Francisco-based firm that stages hands-on cooking parties and corporate team-building events, says that her company hires interns for its marketing department and for its kitchen management functions. “The students we bring in for our marketing department need to be proficient in social media and communications,” she says. The students in the kitchen management program need food- and cooking-related skills. “We make it very clear in our job descriptions what the candidate will need for a specific internship,” Koehler adds.
Tara Goodwin Frier, founder of the Goodwin Group, a public relations firm based in Walpole, Mass., has two to three unpaid interns working for her at any given time. She typically finds them by attending college fairs or through the connections she's developed as a guest lecturer at Boston University.
While she always makes sure to interview each candidate herself, she also has her younger employees interview the college student as well. These “peer interviews” as she calls them, often reveal more than what Frier will be able to glean. “It’s amazing what a college student will say—or reveal—to someone closer to their age,” she says, noting that some candidates have admitted during the interview process that they’re not even sure what they want to do with their lives. “As much as we value transparency in my company, I do tell these students that that’s something they probably don’t want to repeat in other job interviews,” Frier says.
Decide paid or unpaid
Given that most small businesses are not flush with money, many opt to offer unpaid internships. In most cases, the student will receive college credits for the hours worked in lieu of a paycheck. While hiring an unpaid intern is perfectly legal, there are some guidelines established by the Department of Labor that must be followed. Among them: The intern’s training should be centered on the skill they’re pursuing in college—writing, accounting, culinary trade—and not something unrelated to their studies. In other words, having an unpaid intern around as a source of cheap labor to pick up office supplies or fetch your dry cleaning would likely be frowned upon by the Labor Department.
Frier doesn’t pay her interns, but she does cover expenses related to any events she has them attend on behalf of the company and its clients, and does offer a stipend of several hundred dollars at their end of their internship. “They are getting college credit for the time they’re spending with the company, but I also think the stipend shows that we value their contribution,” she says.
Be ready to offer feedback—and patience
Though some interns will shine brighter than others, it’s important to keep in mind that they’re still college students and will likely need some gentle course correcting—or sometimes more—while they work at your company.
As a public relations firm with several high-profile clients, including the NFL’s New England Patriots, Frier often needs her interns to interact with reporters. “One of the things I noticed was that college students lack telephone etiquette,” she says. “They’re so used to simply texting or emailing.” To break them of that habit, Frier says she’s written out scripts for what they need to say on the phone when they reach a reporter to figure out if they’re interested in covering a particular event or client. “We work in a multi-generational world,” she says, “so it’s important that we stay aware of the skills that each generation brings with them—or doesn’t.”