An internship program, when done right, can be a win-win for your business and the student interns you bring on board. From the intern's perspective, working at your company provides them with an opportunity to get practical in-the-field work experience, learn about your organization and its culture, and gain insight into where they might like to take their career.

From your perspective as a business owner, creating an intern program provides opportunities to pre-screen candidates as potential future full-time employees as well as train and develop your own in-house talent. You can also save money on recruitment and onboarding should you decide to offer the intern full-time employment following graduation. Employees who start out at an organization as interns have shorter learning curves than other new hires and are faster integrated into the corporate culture. Additional ways interns benefit companies include:

  • They perform junior-level tasks so senior staff can be freed up to focus on advanced applications of their skills and knowledge.
  • Interns bring a fresh perspective — often including next-generation insights — to the organization.
  • They keep your connections with colleges, universities, and other educational institutions fluid.

This article covers what an internship is — and what it is not — and provides a roadmap to guide you in establishing a great internship program for your organization.

What Is an Internship Program?

A useful way to establish what an internship program is maybe to first explore what it is not. An internship program is not:

  • A mechanism to get free or extremely cheap labor
  • A part-time job where the intern is saddled with tasks unrelated to career experience, such as routine clerical work
  • A loosely-supervised job that places few burdens on the employer and offers no training or other career-furthering benefits to the intern

Creating a great internship program requires planning and thought. When you take on an intern, you commit to being a mentor, offering professional training and development that enhances their academic studies. Hence, they are better prepared to become entry-level employees either in your organization or another.

While the structure for a particular internship can take several forms, some common characteristics include:

  • Limited in duration: Internships can be as long or as short as you want. The duration of an internship is often linked to an academic calendar — like a semester or summer break — or a corporate calendar, like a quarter. Sometimes internships are scheduled for a few weeks or even a year. All internships, however, are for a set period of time that is agreed to in advance.
  • Enhances the intern's skills: Interns should get as much out of the program as they put in. While some internships are paid, the primary purpose of an internship is for the student to acquire both hard and soft work skills as they apply professional knowledge to real-world scenarios.
  • Supervision is provided: Your role is to provide supervision and mentorship while benefiting from additional help in the workplace.
  • Monetary or other compensation: Internships can be paid or unpaid. However, if the intern does not receive monetary compensation, they usually receive academic credit.

Create Your Internship Program's Structure

Successful internship programs for college students and others have structure, learning objectives, and goals. When designing your internship program, try to clearly identify:

  • What your expectations are regarding attendance, dress code, and demeanor: Do not assume that your intern will intuit proper office protocol. This might be their first job in the "real world." Set them up to succeed by explaining the rules up front.
  • What daily responsibilities the intern will have: Providing a structure that incorporates daily tasks will help your intern settle into the rhythm of your organization and feel like they are a team member from the outset. The tasks can be as simple as checking voicemails from the evening before, scanning the online news for relevant articles about your business, or even making coffee for the team (as long as that is not all that they do). The idea is to give them a way to be helpful from the get-go.
  • The intern's short- and long-term projects and deliverables: To the extent possible, try to have some work assignments and deliverables ready for your intern before they start. This will take some thought and planning on your part, but it helps provide a more satisfying internship experience. You don't want to be in a position of scrounging around for something the intern can do.
  • Roles and responsibilities of supervisors: Set up a supervisory system in advance and ensure that staff members supervising an intern understand when to provide hands-on assistance. If possible, appoint an internship coordinator in your organization to help facilitate communications between supervisors and interns.
  • A system for evaluating the intern's progress and providing feedback to the intern: Set up regular intervals for the supervisor to meet with the intern to discuss performance, give feedback, and allow the intern to ask questions and seek assistance. Provide a final evaluation once the internship ends.
  • A system for obtaining feedback from the intern: Whether it is at the end of the internship during an exit interview or even during periodic meetings, be sure to set up a time and place to elicit feedback from the intern about making future internships programs even better.

Assess Legal Issues

There are potential legal issues that come with hiring interns. Therefore, it is important to become familiar with potential legal issues, including worker age requirements, compensation requirements, workplace behavior policies, and immigration issues. You also need to work with your human resources professionals and legal counsel to set appropriate policies and procedures in place to protect the company and your interns.

Age-Related Legal Matters

As an employer, you need to be aware of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and your applicable state laws regarding child labor. Of course, once a person reaches age 18, the FLSA will not be an issue. But many internship programs are open to high school students or first-year college students who might fall under these underage labor laws.

You should also take care not to discriminate against older internship applicants based on their age. Many older workers pursue advanced degrees and make career changes. Hence, you can not only get yourself into trouble as age discrimination is illegal, but also you could be missing out on an extremely qualified candidate just because they are older than the typical intern.

Wage-Related Legal Matters

If you are a private-sector for-profit employer, you should consider paying your interns your state's minimum wage or an amount that reflects the value of the assistance you will receive during the internship. While the US Department of Labor does recognize some exceptions to the wage requirements of the FLSA for internships, it is up to you to prove that your internship falls under one or more of these exceptions, which include:

  • The internship provides academic credit.
  • The intern receives real work training that would be given in an educational setting.
  • The duration of the internship corresponds with the academic calendar.
  • The intern's work provides significant educational benefits and does not displace the work of paid employees.

Workplace Policies Concerning Interns

It's important to note that workplace rules and policies apply to paid and unpaid interns alike, just like any other employee. Failure to enforce your company's HR policies with respect to supervisors, interns, and other employees can result in legal exposure. The best way to avoid problems is to regularly check in with your interns to ensure everyone is being treated equally and held to the same workplace conduct standards.

Immigration Law Exposure

If you take on an international student as an intern — whether paid or not — you must comply with all federal and state immigration laws. You do not want to get into a situation where a foreign national in the country on a student visa violates the terms of their visa by interning with your company. Understand how immigration laws apply to private sector internships and create policies and procedures to ensure compliance.

Create an Intern Job Description

A well-crafted internship job description is not only important in attracting the most promising candidates, but it is also a way for you to promote your company and its brand. Take the opportunity to talk about your company's values, mission, and culture and explain why it is a great place to work.

Provide a detailed description of the skills and qualifications the internship position requires. Be clear about the qualities you are seeking in an intern, such as:

  • Desired academic major or area of study
  • GPA or class rank, if relevant
  • Technical abilities and systems knowledge
  • Other hard skills

You should also delineate the types of soft skills and attributes you want your intern to possess, i.e., you want your intern to be able to:

  • Think critically
  • Manage time effectively
  • Communicate successfully
  • Work on a team productively

Create a section that lists out the skills and experience the intern can expect to gain during their time with your company. Again, be specific as the best candidates will be seeking an internship that offers professional development and enhances their career prospects by providing a valuable learning experience that can't be gained in the classroom.

Finally, discuss what hours the intern will be expected to work, what you expect their start date to be, what the compensation will be — monetary pay and/or availability of college credit — and the end date of the internship. If you can show flexibility in these areas — interns often have to juggle work against a demanding academic schedule — you will attract more qualified candidates.

Tips for Recruiting an Intern

Often, interns are recruited through an academic institution's jobs board or career center, or both. Some other ways to recruit interns include:

  • Attend college career fairs.
  • Post the job on the careers page of your website.
  • Reach out to professors to help get the word out about your internship.
  • Post the internship opportunity on online career platforms such as Indeed and Glassdoor.
  • Share the position on your company's social media pages, including LinkedIn.
  • Promote the opening on your personal social media pages, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, and ask your network to share the post.
  • Encourage current employees to refer qualified candidates.

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Notice to the Reader

The content within this article is meant to be used as a general guide and introduction to creating an internship program and may not apply to your specific situation. Always consult with an attorney and human resources professional to ensure you're meeting hiring standards and complying with all labor and other applicable laws.