The Employer’s Guide to Internships, Part One

This is the first installment of a two-part series about how you as the employer can ensure a positive experience when hosting an intern in your workplace. This article will focus on what you need to do to prepare for your intern before they even start working (steps 1-4). Next week I’ll follow up with the second half, which will focus on tips for managing  your intern and dealing with the inevitable bumps in the road.

Why should the employer have to prepare?

There has been a lot of talk lately about benefits of hosting an internship in your office, and the ethics surrounding such an undertaking. More and more pressure is being put on the employers to offer beneficial experiences for the intern, and not simply use them as a personal assistant. Here are a few quick reasons to put in the little bit of extra effort to provide a positive experience for your intern:

  1. Most colleges have guidelines that employers agree to follow when hiring their students as interns. Students are cautioned to be wary of internships that require a lot of making coffee and less actual learning. So, in many cases, you don’t have a choice but to make sure your intern is actually learning while working for you.
  2. Creating a strong relationship with local colleges can help you find the students best suited for your positions. If an intern reports that he mostly filed papers and made copies, your internship is less likely to be recommended to future students than one where more hands-on learning took place. Interns will also tell classmates with similar work ethics and interests about their experiences, bringing a steady stream of qualified students your way. Creating this relationship between your company and a college can be one of the most important aspects of the entire internship experience.
  3. With a little planning and preparation, hosting an intern can provide a tremendous boost in productivity and inject some enthusiasm to your place of business. Without it, you’ll become frustrated with the hassle of trying to keep them busy, and they will feel like they aren’t benefiting from the job.

Why should you take my advice?

I led efforts at to create, launch, brand and run Pegasus Creative, a student communications agency within the Office of University Communications at Oglethorpe University. Since the fall of 2012 I’ve supervised a new group of interns every semester, ranging from 2 – 9 students. Each semester I learn something new and tweak the program and policies to make sure both parties are getting the most out of the internship experience. Each piece of advice I offer here comes from a lesson I learned the hard way. I’ll share those anecdotes with you so you can learn from my mistakes.

Before your intern starts working:

#1: Set three goals for the semester

Make sure you're both shooting at the same target.

It’s important to understand why you are hiring an intern in the first place. Make a list of three goals you hope to achieve by enlisting the help of an intern. Maybe you want to increase the frequency of posts to your company blog, or would like to get a company Instagram account up and running. Think about the problem you are trying to solve by hiring an student and set realistic goals that he can help your workplace reach.

My lesson learned: I’ve bitten off more than I could chew, and ended up with too many interns and not enough work to keep them all busy. It became a drain on the time I had for my own projects to constantly have students telling me they were finished and ready for their next assignment. The next semester my coworkers and I took a step back and carefully thought about which positions would benefit the company most, and only hired for those.

Interns come to you ready to learn, and you need to be prepared to teach them.

Purple Cat is ready for his job interview. #2: Be confident in your hiring decisions

Think about the type of personality that will mesh with your office culture. Do you have  quiet workplace where staff spend a lot of time concentrating, or do you have a lot of round table, collaborative projects? Will the intern spend most of their time alone, or working directly with the public? Everyone wants detail-oriented, hard-working, creative thinking staff, but thinking about the quirks specific to your workplace can help you fine tune the type of person you’re looking for.

Don’t hire a student because he seems like a nice kid, or you want to give him a chance, even though they didn’t really impress you. Follow your instincts. A poor intern fit will only create a headache for you and poor experience for them.

Don’t hire two people if you end up with equally qualified candidates, if you really only have enough work for one. Hire one and the other to return the following semester.

My lesson learned: Let’s just say I didn’t follow my own advice and learned this one the hard way.

#3: Have assignments waiting for him on the first day

Don’t wait until your intern shows up for work on the first day to think about what you’re going to have him do. It’s frustrating for you to have someone underfoot when you’re busy, and it’s frustrating for the intern to feel like they aren’t being useful. Plan ahead so they have several assignments waiting. Think of as many specific tasks as you can and then prioritize them. Prepare more than you think he will need; Interns work quickly!

PaperworkMy lesson learned: One position my team thought would be helpful was a photojournalist, but I hadn’t put much planning into how that position would actually work. I hired a student with a decent portfolio and had her do some research on photo essays, assuming she would apply what she’d learned to her internship. That didn’t work. Without specific assignments and projects to at least get her started, she didn’t know where to begin. She spent the semester doing what she thought I wanted, which wasn’t always correct. I spent the semester frustrated with always having to find something for her to do. A few semesters later I tried again, but this time had a list of specific assignments waiting (submit 3 photos to me for Instagram each week, create and submit a plan to capture the event happening next month, etc.) and the experience was much better for the both of us.

#4: Learn the quirks of the Millennial Generation

On of the biggest struggles that employers face when working with students in the Millennial generation is the difference in culture, both inside and outside the office. Millennials, also known as those in Generation Y, have positive character traits, and some that can prove frustrating for Baby Boomers or those of us in Generation X. There are a wealth of articles about Millennials in the workplace, so read up on the generation that is taking over the workforce. Knowing what to expect when they walk in the door is half the battle.

My lesson learned: I had one intern in particular who had a very strong sense of entitlement. He interrupted closed-door meetings to find out what my colleagues an I were laughing about, closed the door to the interns’ office and turned the music up, commented on whatever I had open on my computer screen upon entering my office, and often said things like “you should read this article, you might learn something.” As a person that tends to avoid confrontation, it was difficult for me to explain (on more than one occasion) that this was not professional behavior. He was caught off guard and probably a little offended, but he got over it. I can only hope he realized how lucky he was to have this experience with an easygoing boss in an internship and not in a real job when the consequences could have been much worse. Most interns are not as bold as this one, but knowing that they could be can often leave you pleasantly surprised.

Here are a few resources I found helpful:

Next week in part two – tips for managing your intern and dealing with unexpected issues!

Also coming soon: Making Your Internship Experience Awesome, an article with tips for students to get the most out of their internship experience.

Images small-versus-large-target illustration by HikingArtist.com, Purple Cat is Ready for His Job Interview by Gary Socrates and Paperwork by Curationpics, CC 2.0

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