For a small business owner, the idea of hiring interns for the summer or even year-round can be very appealing. Intern candidates are often high school or college students who are highly motivated and often are willing to work for cheap wages in order to get valuable career experience. Sometimes these students will even work for free or for course credit.

Intern

Five factors to keep in mind before you hire an intern

Now that summer is here, you may be considering an internship program at your business. Like many decisions you make for your business, however, you need to weigh the pros and cons before you act. Here are five factors to keep in mind when deciding to hire interns:

1. Know the labor laws.

In order to protect the interns and other employees, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has some clear rules in place in regard to interns. The Fair Labor Standards Act usually considers internships with the private sector for profit businesses as “employment” and requires those workers to be paid at least the minimum wage as well as overtime pay. The DOL is a bit more lenient with internships for non-profit organizations and for public employers.

In order for a worker to be considered a “trainee” and not an employee at a “for profit” organization, the position must meet the following DOL requirements:

  • Even though it includes actual operation of the employers’ facilities, the internship must be similar to training which would be given in an education environment.
  • The internship experience must benefit the intern.
  • The intern position does not displace that of any regular employee but rather works under supervision of existing staff.
  • The employer that trains the intern derives no immediate advantage from the intern’s work and, in fact. the employer’s work may be impeded occasionally.
  • The intern is not entitled to a job at the completion of the internship.
  • Employer and the intern both understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for internship.

2. Hire the best candidates for the position.

Think of hiring an intern the same way you would for any other position on your staff. Look for the person with the best qualifications. This person will need to fit in with the goals you have established and with the people you have trained.

Treat the position and the applicants professionally. Write a complete job description and request resumes and cover letters from applicants. When you narrow down the field, schedule interviews with the best candidates and follow up those conversations by contacting their references.

Advertise your position with professional sites and with high school counselors and with colleges and universities. Sites such as internships.com, enternships.com and internweb.com allow employers to post internship positions for free.

3. Treat your intern with respect.

Although a good internship relationship is a win-win for both parties, be sure to focus on the training aspect of the situation not the “cheap labor” aspect. Stay involved with what the intern is doing and make sure there is some oversight and feedback.

Since many interns are young and inexperienced, part of your job may involve establishing and enforcing office rules, including proper attire (especially in the summer) and Internet use limits. Be sure to give substantial assignments to your intern, not just busy work. Good interns can get discouraged quickly if they feel there is nothing important for them to do and/or if they feel their time is not valued.

4. Consider flexible options.

Depending on your business, you might be able to offer a virtual internship or a combination of an in-office and work from home internship. Is there work that your intern can accomplish off-site with the two of you communicating regularly via phone or Internet? Possible tasks include website and social media development, marketing and sales program, writing and editing assignments and research.

A virtual intern saves time and money in commuting costs and still gains valuable experience. Since you can hire a virtual intern from anywhere across the country or even across the world, you also have a larger pool of applicants. A drawback is that you usually cannot fully develop a true internship training relationship on a remote basis.

5. When in doubt, ask questions.

If you are still unsure if hiring an intern is right for your business, there are a variety of resources to help you. The DOL website (dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.pdf) is a good place. Or try the Internship Institute (internshipinstitute.org), a non-profit social impact organization which states that its mission is to “bridge the experience gap between classroom learning and workplace skills.

Ask colleagues about their use of interns and gain from their experiences. If you have further questions about hiring an intern and whether it should be a paid or unpaid position, you can always consult a labor and employment attorney.

Some businesses look at internships as a great way to train future full-time employees. When you take the steps to hire an intern, you can find someone who is a good fit for your company and someone who may indeed come back and work for you on school break, over the summer and after graduation. On the other hand, interns gain the benefit of real-life experience in their chosen profession. Interns can see if a profession is a good for them and they can “try on” your company for size.

So do your homework. No one knows your firm better than you do. When you combine the educational benefits for the intern with the enthusiasm and fresh insight he or she can bring to your company, you might find that an internship program is a good choice for your business.