Interns can be an excellent source of inexpensive — or even free — labor for small businesses. In the ideal scenario, everyone wins: Your company gets a helping hand, and the intern gains professional experience.
Of course, the ideal scenario doesn’t just magically appear. As in any hiring situation, you need to hire a competent worker. And, if the job description is limited to “fetch coffee and sort mail,” your intern won’t get much out of the deal.
The Intuit Small Business Blog asked Tucker Hutchinson, marketing director at GoOverseas.com, for some advice on getting the most out of interns. (His company currently employs seven interns and has worked with more than 25 of them to date.)
ISBB: What are the best ways for a small business to find great interns?
Hutchinson: Plug into local schools. Do this with a long-term perspective. It’s worth cultivating relationships with a few department heads or career-office staff, because you’ll likely be on the hunt for a new batch of interns every few months. Having a contact you can shoot a job description to without much hassle is worth spending a little more time on up front — find the best person to build that relationship with. Most schools also let companies post ads to their campus job-listing services whenever they’d like, for free. You’ll likely use those listings again and again, so make them good.
Generally speaking, students who are searching for internships — especially the unpaid variety — are doing it for the experience, so be sure to mention the level of responsibility your interns can take on. GoOverseas.com is located just off the University of California, Berkeley campus, and we’ve just orientated our fifth batch of Berkeley undergraduate interns. Each time the recruitment process has been easier — developing good training and feedback structures has helped a lot. We’ve avoided sites like Monster and Craigslist because working directly with schools is free, and the association lends your openings credibility.
How do you get the most out of an intern?
Through trial and error, we’ve found that the easiest way to ensure interns are productive is to limit each full-time employee to having one intern at a time. It can be very tempting to interview that last applicant when their resume looks too good to be true, and even harder to resist bringing them on board, but it’s never worth it. Small businesses don’t have the HR departments needed to support a big class of interns. It’s better for individual employees to form partnerships with individual interns and have them work together on a team.
Along those lines, think of how an intern can further your goals and responsibilities. Make them work with you, not against you. Lastly, set expectations. At the start and end of every intern shift, sit down with your intern and tell them exactly what you expect from them during their hours in the office. Mandate that they check in with you before they leave for the day. That accountability will make a huge difference in their productivity.
What are some of the common mistakes employers make with interns?
The biggest mistake we’ve made here was the tendency to be greedy that I mentioned previously. Don’t bite off more than you can chew; only bring on as many interns as you know you can handle, train, and mentor. Another common mistake is treating the interns as a group instead of as individuals. Doing the former encourages them to act like students, not employees. Pairing each intern one-on-one with a full-time employee helps prevent that mistake. If you sense your interns falling into “groupthink,” divide and conquer quickly, especially if an opinionated ringleader emerges.
What are the key differences between paid and unpaid interns, aside from the obvious?
Truth be told, we try our best not to see them differently. Even our paid interns are mostly being compensated with our mentorship and the exposure they get from being here. Expecting less from an unpaid intern is the best way to receive less from them. Good interns, paid or unpaid, will rise to hard work.