by Max Berry

The internship has become a rite of passage for America's young workers, and with good reason. Internships are chances for students and recent graduates to put their potential to practice and discover what kind of work fulfills them, or, just as importantly, what kind doesn't. But hiring an intern can do plenty for a small business owner also--if you're prepared for the commitment.

Finding The Right One For You
Before you hire an intern, make sure you have the time to manage one. If you don't, appoint a trusted member of your staff who can; someone who knows your business and the industry well and is eager to share that knowledge. Make a plan with the senior members of your staff to determine where an intern's services are most needed, which tasks should be a part of his or her daily routine, and to whom on your staff the intern will report.

 

Sites like http://internships.com/ and http://www.experience.com/ allow you to advertise available internships, but one of the most effective ways to find an intern is to contact local colleges and universities. Many schools' career centers run internship programs, whereby students can intern with companies in their chosen fields for college credit. Even if you don't participate in a formal program, you may want to send information about your internship to relevant professors and faculty and ask that they pass it along to students.

When choosing an intern, go through all the steps you would when hiring a full time employee. Ask for professional resumes and conduct interviews. This will give your prospective interns some insight into the hiring process and help you discover who among the bunch is most prepared to work in a professional environment. Even more than when hiring an employee, weigh the benefits that working for your company would have for each candidate. Remember, you are grooming a future employee-- someone else's or possibly even yours.

Mutual Benefits
Some benefits of employing an intern are obvious: they can provide valuable administrative assistance around the office, performing for very low--or even no--wages duties a temp or full time administrative assistant would be paid for. Moving an intern from project to project throughout your firm frees up your employees to prioritize their own work and focus on the most important tasks first. And it is almost an axiom at this point that new graduates have a firmer grasp on new trends and technologies than their more senior workplace counterparts.

But perhaps the most beneficial characteristic of an intern--a good intern anyway--is one of attitude. Interns bring a new perspective and youthful energy to the workplace. For an intern, everything is new; the simple act of coming to the office is exciting. This kind of energy can be infectious to your longtime employees.

 

And you can do just as much for your intern. A college campus--full of pursuits more academic than practical--isn't necessarily the ideal place to discover one's calling, but an internship may be just that. Students and recent graduates still uncertain of their next move can benefit enormously from a well-conceived internship program.

 

Don't forget that internships, ideally, are ways for prospective employees and employers to feel each other out. Today's intern could become tomorrow's employee, but the street that leads there runs two ways. Commit to the idea that the seasoned business owner can learn from, as well as teach, the young upstart. The business relationship that results could be of equal value to you both.

Managing Your Intern
If you don't pay your interns-and many managers don't-make sure you aren't risking legal trouble by using them as uncompensated employees. Law dictates that interns cannot take the place of a regular salaried employee. This means interns can't be used as fill-ins for employees away on maternity leave or furlough. Rather, interns must receive active training of the type that they would pay for at a professional or vocational school.

Many interns work for college credit or simply for the real-world experience an unpaid internship provides. That experience may prove incentive enough to take an internship, since students receiving college credit would have to pay their college for those hours anyway. Nevertheless, the issue of unpaid internships and potential employer abuses of the free labor they provide has gained much more scrutiny lately, so it's important that any unpaid internship your company offers complies with the six federal legal criteria established by the Labor Department. (For more on these criteria, go here: http://wdr.doleta.gov/directives/attach/TEGL/TEGL12-09acc.pdf.) You may want to offer interns the option of working for college credit at the outset--a matter they can take up with the school--and, if they perform well and want to continue on after the term ends, consider offering them a small hourly rate for their work.

Interns are there to learn, and the best way to learn a task is to actually do it. An internship should entail one special project to be completed by the intern over the course of their time with your firm. Set regular times for them to check in with you about their progress, but let your interns learn firsthand what it is to see a project through from conception to completion under real-world circumstances.

If you notice a problem in an intern's performance, mention it immediately. More than anything, mistakes are opportunities for learning. Make sure your interns feel comfortable coming to you and asking questions, but always ask for as much feedback as you give. Seeing yourself and your company from a fresh perspective can only be a good thing. After all, you can learn just as much from an intern as your intern can from you.