Interns: Why You Need Them And How To Get Started

how to hire an intern

06 Nov Interns: Why You Need Them And How To Get Started

As a business owner, you’ve probably briefly entertained the idea of hiring an intern.  However, the process of actually offering an internship can seem a bit overwhelming for a smaller company without a team of lawyers and HR specialists to set the program up. 

You’re probably expecting this next line to read “the good news is it’s quite simple.”

While that’d be a great way to rope you in, the truth is that hiring an intern isn’t as simple as posting a ‘want ad’ in your local college newspaper or on Craiglist.  Stick with us, and we’ll tell you exactly how to hire an intern the right way.  

There’s a great deal of planning involved, along with laws and regulations to consider, but the good news is that starting an internship program is actually worth the effort involved. It’ll take some time (and reading) to make it work, but in the end, you, your business, and a lot of young minds will benefit.  


Why interns are good for your company

This is the first question that you should ask yourself. As previously mentioned, hiring interns take a pretty large time and resource commitment so it’s only reasonable to expect some sort of return from it.

Some of the benefits you may see include:

  • Interns bring a fresh perspective to situations that seasoned employees (even new hires) don’t. They’re still in their ‘learning mode’, so it’s easier for them to look at situations differently than those of us who have been entrenched in the business world for a few years.
  • They’re going to be good with technology—really good. Sure you’re good with your computer and can rock social media, but there’s a good chance that your college intern can run circles around you. Interns can help up your game and identify new trends and areas of opportunity.
  • Speaking of social media, interns are also great Brand Embassadors. Make them excited about the projects you have them involved in and they’ll become excited about your company. They’ll then readily share that excitement and endorsement with their friends, family, and their social media channels.
  • Internship programs create a pipeline for new employees. The process of bringing on an intern is similar in many ways to hiring a new employee,  so you’ll already be looking for someone you feel has the potential to grow within your company. If they make it through the hiring process, then you get to spend a few months working with them, testing them out without obligation to hire. Think of it as a really long and intense interview process.
  • Hiring interns actually increases retention rates. According to the NACE 2011 Internship and Co-Op Survey, the retention rate for employees who were brought on through internship programs was 55.1% compared to only 44% of those who didn’t participate in internships.
  • Interns can also help you tackle big projects that you may not take on otherwise. People apply to internships with the goal of gaining real-world experience and walking away with at least one big accomplishment (hopefully more) that they can add to their resume. By assigning them to a larger, more meaningful project (perhaps related to community outreach, for example) you’re able to fulfill that desire while also adding value and allowing your company to accomplish big things. Just be careful not to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, which we’ll get into shortly.


Things to consider before hiring an intern

Some people may hear the word intern and think “free or cheap labor” or associate it with an assistant you can send off to run your personal errands like getting coffee or picking up dry cleaning. Not only is that far from the point of an internship program, but it could also be illegal. Here are some things you need to consider before starting an internship program:


      • Interns aren’t there to fill a spot that should be taken by a paid employee. Interns join your team with the expectation that they’re signing up for an intensive, immersive training, and educational program. They’re not coming on just to help you catch-up with the last year’s worth of filing.




    • There’s a pretty big time commitment for both you and other employees involved with bringing on an intern. They require a lot of hands-on time, so if you’re already overloaded, an intern won’t necessarily help. In fact, adding an intern may just increase your workload.




    • You, or another employee,  need to be good at training and mentoring. If you don’t have someone already on the payroll who you think would be stellar at helping shape a young mind, then it may be a good idea to wait until that person joins your team. It takes  special talent to be a good mentor, and it’s not fair to your interns to allow someone who doesn’t have that skill to try. Remember, they’re making a commitment, too.




    • You’ve got to have a project in mind. As mentioned previously, an intern doesn’t come on board to help you clear out your inbox or sort through last year’s receipts. Students sign up to be an intern because they want to be able to add something like “assisted in launching community outreach program” to their resume, not “answered phones and walked the office dog”.



The great intern debate—paid or unpaid?

There are some laws that apply to hiring an intern and those laws also dictate whether the internship can be unpaid. The Fair Labor Standards Act has a set of 6 very specific criteria that your company’s internship program must meet in order to offer an internship that is unpaid.

Those 6 criteria, as listed on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Website are:

  • The internship must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment;
  • The internship must be for the benefit of the intern;
  • The intern does not displace regular employees;
  • The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern;
  • The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship; and
  • The intern understands that he or she is not entitled to wages.

In addition to the requirements listed above, several states have their own rules related to unpaid interns. You’ll want to check with your state’s Department of Labor to verify whether or not your program would be subject to any additional regulations.

If your program doesn’t qualify under the 6-point test set up by the FLSA, then you may need to offer your intern a wage that, at minimum, meets the Federal Minimum Wage standards.

One final thing to consider, if you do choose to go the paid internship route, be sure you’re offering a wage that will attract good candidates. While it may be tempting to offer the bare minimum, consider that you get what you’re willing to pay for and the more skilled a candidate the more they’re going to be worth.


Other things you need to know

Be sure you check out the Affordable Care Act and understand ahead of time whether or not you’ll be responsible for offering any benefits to your interns, specifically if they’re paid.

According to the  NACE website you will be responsible for providing an insurance option or an “Employer Shared Responsibility Payment” if the following are true:

  • Your company employs at least 50 employees
  • Your intern will work more than 120 days with your company in a 360 day period
  • Your intern will work more than 30 hours a week


Where to find interns

Finding candidates for internship programs will require many of the same tactics you’d use if you were looking for a paid employee, however there are some difference.

The first big difference is going to be where you find your candidates. You’ll want to use a mixture of resources to increase your chances of finding the right person for the program.  Here are a few good ones:

  • Local colleges and universities are a treasure trove of students looking for internship opportunities. Many have job boards or even departmental programs that help match prospective students with companies looking to hire interns. Not only can this provide a steady flow of valuable interns, but it also allows your company to directly help your local community.
  • LinkedIn, which is quickly becoming the professional version of Facebook. Our tech-savvy students know the power of social media (in all forms) and will likely have a profile. Either search for them yourself or consider posting an ad on LinkedIn advertising your need for interns. While you’re at it, put out the call for interns on other social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook as well.
  • Speaking of advertising —don’t underestimate the power of online job boards. Sites like Craigslist, Indeed and other job search sites can allow you to reach a large audience and garner an influx of applications. Industry-specific sites, like Idealist, which specializes in helping non-profits get started, are also good options.
  • You should also consider utilizing sites that specialize in internship opportunities. Some examples include: (powered by the text-book resale site, OneStop by SimplicityMediaBistro, and Looksharp
  • Consider the type of internship you’re offering, the type of candidates you want to attract and figure out where they’re congregating online. An example of a community to check out is Reddit, which provides access to a large population of individuals across a number of different interests and industries. You should also consider more specialized sites, like, which focuses on marketing.


Interviewing interns—why it needs to be different

Bringing on an intern is a big investment—both in time and money—so you want to be sure you’re bringing on the right ones. Asking the standard interview questions won’t get you the answers you need to make the right decision. We suggest thinking outside of your normal “interview” box and trying some of these:

  • What are you most passionate about learning – personally and professionally – and why?
  • Can you tell me about a project you’ve worked on previously and the impact that project had?
  • What’s your goal with this internship?
  • Why did you pick your major/minor?
  • How will you create value as an intern?
  • Tell me about your volunteer or community service experience?
  • Why do you want to intern here?
  • What are your expectations regarding this internship?
  • What do you know about this industry?

Along with those standard questions, you also want to be sure to throw in some that will encourage them to think on their feet and provide non-standard answers.

For example, if you want to gauge their values, try asking them to name the most important person in their life. If they mention a cast member from The Jersey Shore and you’re a very family-centric company, they may not be the right fit for you. Some other examples include:

  • If your client has been away for the last two weeks, totally off-the-grid, how would you summarize the important news for her? (This can help you identify if the candidate is up-to-date on current events and also what they view as ‘important’)
  • How many pencils are produced in the US each year? (This is a great way to see how well a candidate can sell you an idea, because most people won’t know this figure off the top of their head)

Above all else, you want to be sure the intern you pick fits your company and your team. Ask questions that will help you determine whether they share values and passions that will allow you to provide a beneficial learning environment and allow them to gain experience that will help them down the line.


Managing a intern

Now that you’ve interviewed and chosen the perfect intern, what’s next? Since an internship is meant to be an educational program, there’s more to it than simply handing them the employee handbook and their email password.

  • First, assign a dedicated manager and make sure they have a main point of contact so they know who to go to with questions. Remember, you want to choose a person who has the personality and experience to interact with the intern and help them grow professionally during their internship
  • Make them feel welcomed and like they’re part of the team. Introduce them to other employees, give them their own space (desk, cubicle, bean bag chair) and get them involved with things like group lunches and outings. They may be temporary, but they’re still part of your business family.
  • Share the company’s vision with them, including why they’re here and what the goals are for both the company and their project.
  • Speaking of their project – Have a dedicated project to assign them to. Sure, it’s tempting to make them a catch-all for all the tasks no one else wants to do, but remember that’s not the point of having an internship program (and may also violate federal laws). Assigning them to a specific program will not only keep things in compliance, but it will allow your company to provide a more meaningful internship experience that will give the intern the accomplishment and experience they’re looking for.
  • Break projects down into smaller bits and review them regularly. This will allow for a more regular flow of feedback, which is important. One way to do is to break their work down into 3 different types:
    • Short term projects (1-2 weeks in length)
    • Long-term Project (to be completed by the end of the internship)
    • Filler work (this is to keep them busy between the larger tasks – nothing makes you feel more useless or awkward in a new situation than sitting there looking bored. This also prevents them from going astray)
  • Set goals for your interns just like you would with a regular, paid employee. These will help both you and your intern see how they’re performing and where they may need more help. It also gives them direction and helps them stay focused on what’s important.
  • Assume no prior knowledge and provide solid training. Just because your intern was qualified and blew their interview out of the water doesn’t mean you should assume they know what they’re doing. In fact, it’s safer to assume that they have no prior knowledge and that they need to be taught. At best, you’ll help them develop new skills, and, at worse, you’ll provide a refresher so they can feel confident that they’re doing their job correctly.
  • Schedule weekly check-ins. Their manager should be their regular contact, but make time to speak with them personally, preferably in a casual setting. You want them to feel safe talking to you and sharing their thoughts. This can give them the opportunity to provide feedback on how the program is going, ask questions and for you to assign new or additional objectives.

One final note before your charge off to change the lives of brilliant, young minds. Be sure you consult with HR and legal experts before launching your program so you can be sure it follows all required state and local regulations. While we’ve researched all of the information provided, we’re certainly no substitute for legal counsel, and we want to ensure you’ve got all of your bases covered.

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