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Step 1: Create your internship program

Before you jump into finding potential candidates, you need to make sure you have a solid internship program in place. If you’ve got this sorted out already, you can skip onto the next step. (Or stick around and see if there’s anything else you could add to improve your current program!)

Once you figure out details like the types of tasks the intern will be working on and how many hours a week they’ll work, it will help you create your job description and hire the intern who is best-suited for the job. You can start developing your internship program by answering the following questions:

How soon do you want to hire your intern(s)?

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in the U.S., on average about 24 days elapse between an intern’s first interview and the offer. That doesn’t mean you should expect to have your intern with you in under a month. Au contraire! It’s best to start the recruiting process way in advance – we’re talking 3-4 months in advance – to give interns enough time to plan ahead and make sure the internship will work with their schedule and the requirements of the school. Also keep in mind that the actual start date of the internship usually coincides with the beginning of an academic semester.

You can use this internship recruitment cycle as a guideline for hiring interns:

  • ☀️  For summer interns, start recruiting in February and make your final selection in April.
  • 🍁  For fall interns, start recruitment in May with the hiring process ending in July.
  • 🌸  For spring interns, start recruiting in October and make final hires in December.

What do you want your intern(s) to accomplish during the program?

Now’s the time to list out the types of projects and meaningful work that could be assigned to future interns. This does not include grunt labor or picking up the slack in areas your team members don’t have the bandwidth for.

On using interns for grunt work:

It’s a well-known stereotype that interns are the go-to people for fetching coffee, making copies and other annoying stuff that no one wants to do. If you save all the menial tasks for your interns, they’ll most likely do the work without complaining, but at the end of the internship you may find them (rightfully) blasting you on Glassdoor or LinkedIn for a poor internship experience. Consider the following: What do you want your company to be known for among the newest talent entering the job market? Certainly not poor or exploitative practices. So choose the most relevant and worthwhile tasks you can imagine and create an environment that allows your interns to grow and thrive.

Select your projects and then come up with a collection of tasks designed to build skills, help your company and ideally have something to do with your intern’s field of study or the career path they’re pursuing. Remember that interns these days are typically tech-savvy and enthusiastic, so they may work faster than you planned. Have a couple of back-up projects planned should they finish the first ones quickly.

Need a few ideas for educational on-the-job experiences?

  • Have your intern research a topic for a project you’re working on
  • Invite them to observe an internal meeting, client meeting or sales call
  • Show your intern how to use a piece of equipment or software
  • Help them to create a company presentation or slide deck for a meeting
  • Role-play with your intern, practicing things like client follow-up calls or closing a sale
  • Teach your intern how to prepare a report, budget or plan

Who will supervise and mentor the intern(s)?

Choosing an internship supervisor and/or mentor is crucial to your program’s success. This person or small group of people will assist in hiring interns, conduct orientations, collaborate with interns to develop learning goals and regularly evaluate their performance and the success of the program.

Interns are not seasoned professionals, so expectations, policies and objectives will need to be clearly outlined and explained to them. You can do this with a handbook or web page or create a straightforward internal document they can read and sign.

Be prepared to check in periodically with your interns to guide them and make sure they’re on the right track. You can schedule meetings to learn what they’re passionate about working on and tailor some aspects of the internship to their professional goals and interests.

Will the internship be paid or unpaid?

We could write an entire article about this subject, but for now we’ll keep it short(ish).  Depending on where you’re located, you may have a legal responsibility to pay your interns. Los Angeles-based lawyer Brandon Ruiz, who represents employees in wage disputes, puts it this way: “Interns are not a way to get free labor.

In the U.S. today, around 40% of internships are unpaid positions. Even though this may imply that unpaid internships are “common practice,” they have come under scrutiny as being ethically questionable. Many young professionals cannot afford to work for free – especially during a period of recession accompanied by inflation – and unpaid internships end up excluding millions of low-income candidates from the workforce.

Pie chart showing paid (60%) vs unpaid (40%) internships in the US.

This isn’t just an issue in the United States. The European Parliament recently voted in favor of fair pay for trainees and apprentices, putting pressure on the European Commission to propose a common legal framework to prevent exploitative practices.

If you care about Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the workplace, then you’ll want to consider how unpaid internships affect students from marginalized communities who can’t afford to work for free. Upon graduating, when they have less professional experience than those students with the financial security to accept unpaid work, the gap widens and they are at an even greater disadvantage.

Our advice: If you can afford to pay your interns – whether minimum wage, a small stipend or more – then do it. And if you can’t (say you’re a nonprofit that currently runs on volunteers), then do everything in your power to make sure the internship benefits the intern more than it benefits you as a company. Always make it a mentorship and a valuable learning experience.

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