How to Hire and Manage an Intern (and Why You Should Do It)

I believe that interns are the world’s most underutilized resource.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware of the Beckys and Chads out there who are lazy, disrespectful, and frankly just idiotic, but not all interns are created equal.  Or at least they don’t perform equally.  Some potential interns will blow you away.  They will come in on time or early, they will meet deadlines with exceptional work, and they will be vibrant additions to your workplace.  Interns, especially college students or recent grads, are usually still quite passionate about the field, and they have years of foundational education fresh in their minds.  They are eager and hard-working when they are doing something that they know will help their future career.  They are not all screw-ups, I promise.

But how do you know which one you will get?  How can you make sure that you end up with the good interns?  It may seem like a gamble, but there is actually a science to deciding what interns to take on, just like there is a science to hiring full-time employees.  Here are five tips for hiring and managing interns that will ensure that you don’t regret hiring them.

1. Make your internship more competitive.

This is one of those classic scenarios where the more you invest, the more you will reap the rewards of your investment.  Making your internship more competitive will attract more potential interns, including those who are serious about jump-starting their careers, which will allow you a broader selection to choose from.  Here are some ways to maximize the allure of an internship with you or your company:

  • Pay your interns.  Remember, you don’t have to be giving them $25k a year as an intern, you just have to make it worth their while.  If the school through which the internship is coordinated does not allow the intern to be paid, find another way to stipend your intern’s work with a gift of some sort at the beginning and end of the contract.
  • Promise educational value, and then deliver it.  Your intern should not be getting you coffee.  He or she is there to learn, and you should be devoting time to education in your field.
  • Work with schools to offer class credit.  Usually it requires a few signatures and a site visit or two.  Sometimes it’s more extensive.  However, if you want the passionate and hard-working intern, you will need to ensure that he or she will receive the credit necessary to even consider interning with you.
  • Create work with real-world value.  While an intern is great for editing, proofreading, fact- and number-checking, and other small tasks, having some projects on the to-do list with real-world value will make your internship more competitive.  This adds to the educational value of the internship, and your intern can then use these items to round out his or her resume.  If possible, allow for an “intern project,” or something that can be contributed to the company but which is determined and planned primarily by the intern.
  • Offer a recommendation.  Sites like LinkedIn allow for professional recommendations, and if your intern has a recommendation from a well-reputed company like yours, it will go along way when he or she is looking for a job.  Allow your intern to list you as a professional reference on job applications and resumes.  Mention the possibility of a recommendation up front, and your internship will be more desirable because the employer is invested in the intern’s future.
  • Allow for the possibility that the internship could turn into a permanent position.  Again, only offer this if it is something you can follow through on, but if recent college grads or college seniors are looking for internships, they are usually looking for ones which can lead to full-time jobs.  This is perfect for you as well because the internship is like a trial period where you can test a potential employee’s work ethic, performance quality, and compatibility with the company without having to provide benefits.

2. Make your internship more accessible.

Your internship may pay well, provide a career boost, and offer real-world and educational value, but if your internship is not accessible, no interns, not even Becky and Chad, will know where to find you.  Here’s how you can make sure that the right people are hearing about your internship:

  • Speak at universities.  Find out what schools in your area have programs relevant to your field or department, and go speak to the classes of students who could actually be candidates.  When you talk to the professors, they will often give you indications about which students would be the best new hires.
  • Post on internship sites and job boards.  Sites like internships.com, internmatch.com, and summerinternships.com are highly-accessible search tools for students (I typed “internships” into Google and they were among the first page of results).  Likewise, if your need for an intern is related to a specific project, posting on sites like Elance, Guru.com, and Freelancer.com are there to help people of all ages and experience level find temporary work.
  • Be sure to detail the benefits and particulars of your internship.  Whether you are speaking to a class or posting online, don’t forget to mention all of the alluring aspects we discussed in #1.  Likewise, be sure to list specifics of responsibilities, requirements, and compensation (even if it is just course credit).

3. Require demonstration of professionalism from your potential interns.

An important way to guarantee professionalism from your interns is to require it of them in their application process.  Here are ways to determine an intern’s level of decorum before hiring:

  • Require a resume.  Resumes are great ways to determine one’s level of professionalism.  If you are looking for an intern with a certain amount of experience, the best way to screen candidates is through resumes, just like with new employees.  If you are in a more creative field, the content and design of the resume are a great representation of the personal style and talent of the intern.  Almost every university has a department or staff member who can review student resumes and provide feedback.
  • Require a cover letter.  Unlike the resume, a cover letter is far less formulaic and therefore will provide greater insight into a candidate’s qualifications.  While it may not have much to do with experience, it sheds light on true knowledge of the field, passion for the work involved, and ability to articulate one’s competence.
  • Interview all potential interns.  It is incredible how many internships are arranged just through email and phone conversations.  Interviews are the key to determining whether or not to hire a new employee; why should it be any different for interns?  A good intern will appreciate the interview process, showing up on time and prepared.
  • Supervise your interns.  There should be guidelines in place to make sure that your intern’s work aligns with the company policies and personality.  Provide your intern with these guidelines up front, then check in from time to time (frequently if possible) to ensure that your intern is following them.

4. Be professional with your interns.

If you expect your interns to be professional with you, you certainly better be professional with them in return.  Here is how you can do this:

  • Do not send your intern on coffee runs.  I said it before, and I’m saying it again.  Unless it is an office rotation and the intern is doing it just as often as any other employee, coffee should be nowhere in the job expectations.
  • Conduct performance reviews.  You would do it with any other employee you manage, so you should do it with your intern.  He or she will even learn ways to improve his or her work/work ethic.
  • Give constructive criticism.  Providing feedback is important, but don’t berate their work just because they are interns.  Be professional in your delivery of criticism and offer areas of improvement.
  • Be respectful of your intern’s time.  Be sure to return feedback and correspondence in a timely manner.  Just because your intern is a student doesn’t mean that he or she can wait around or wants to wait around for your response.
  • Provide your intern with directions and specific assignments.  Your intern has probably never worked with your company before and possibly has little to no practical experience in the field.  Be sure to give your intern specific assignments and direction to ensure productivity.

5. Show your intern that he or she is valued and appreciated.

Nobody wants to feel overlooked or in the way, including your intern.  Making him or her feel valued is important for fostering creativity and community, which gives way to better work.  Here are some ways you can show your interns how much you appreciate them:

  • DO NOT SEND YOUR INTERN ON COFFEE RUNS.  Third time’s the charm, right?  Do you get it now?  Nobody wants to feel like the pack mule, coffee boy, or dry-cleaning delivery man.  Giving your intern meaningful tasks will make him or her feel like a valuable contributor to the workforce.
  • Invite your intern to events and informal gatherings.  If the whole office is going, your intern should be invited.  Granted, if your intern is nineteen years old and you’re going to the bar with coworkers, an invitation is unnecessary.  But if the event is office- or department-wide, it is imperative that your intern at least be given the option.  Even if he or she says no, the offer will be appreciated.
  • Brag about your intern in front of your intern.  If your intern is doing a good job, the best way to articulate your appreciation is to let him or her hear you praising his or her work to coworkers, friends, or colleagues.  If you are introducing your intern to someone, especially someone who could help with your intern’s career, spend the next twenty seconds bragging about him or her.

If you make sure you hire the right people by following these steps, you will not be disappointed.  Your interns will be professional and hardworking individuals, and they will feel valued and appreciated.  Then they will tell their classmates, friends, and Twitter followers how awesome you are as a supervisor, and you will have a whole new pool of potential interns to choose from.  Just remember, not all of them are Beckys and Chads.  They just need to be given the opportunity to shine.

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