In good times, college students flood U.S. cities every summer to get a taste of work in their prospective fields. In bad times, interns are available year round and are funded by their universities and the government. If your company is not taking advantage of the recession’s intern boom — don’t worry! It’s not too late!
To Pay or Not To Pay, That is The Question…
Neither the Department of Labor nor the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the number of paid and unpaid internships, but Internships.com CEO Robin Richards told Forbes earlier this year that only one third of internships in the United States are paid positions. In Great Britain, some employers even charge their interns! As the Guardian reported in 2010, the Tory party auctioned off internships at hedge funds to raise thousands of pounds for party coffers, and the start-up “Etsio” charged interns £100 apiece. This “scandal of Britain’s unpaid army” prompted investigations by British law officials and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
In the US, the decision as to whether to pay an intern or not should hinge in part on the type of work the company is looking to have an intern do. For-profit employers must follow the six U.S. Department of Labor guidelines for unpaid internships under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Department states that internships are for the benefit of the intern and emphasizes that “the intern does not displace regular employees,” and “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” In other words, if you want interns to do data entry and coffee fetching, you’d better offer them minimum wage.
While paid positions get four times as many applicants as unpaid ones, to relegate interns to low level tasks is to overlook the immense value they can offer your company and visa versa. I suggest paying interns if you possibly can, or working with local universities to have interns work for you for credit — and then working with them to maximize their experience and your bottom line.
What’s in it for you?
1) Positive Energy. Unlike paid employees, interns have only a short time to make a good impression, and are counting on your good review to boost their career prospects and/or grades. Needless to say, interns can bring unprecedented energy to even the most mundane tasks, and can bolster the overall mood in your office.
2) Offloading. Even unpaid interns can take on some of the more time consuming tasks that every organization must deal with, such as running your social media or creating an affiliate program. The key is to make sure there is a healthy balance between creative/analytical tasks and routine tasks, and that each student has clearly defined and obtainable objectives for the duration of their internship.
3) #Madskills. Facebook’s shares might be taking a nosedive, but America’s 20-somethings are still the social media generation. Nobody knows blogging, tweeting, and pinning like college students — and you need these skills to stay ahead of the game. (An intern started our green wedding pinterest page a few months ago, and it is now the 5th greatest source of traffic to our site!) Interns also represent a highly targeted market and understand how best to reach it. Engage their media skills to get your company or organization’s message out and to build your brand with the younger generation.
4) Defining a new position. Especially in young companies where people wear many hats, interns can help move projects forward while at the same time developing their skill set to be able to manage the very project they are working on. In other words, interns can help define and craft a position for themselves at your organization and save you the time and hassle of recruiting to fill their shoes. This is their dream, so if it happens, it is a real win-win. At a minimum, interns can allow you to test new ideas or programs at little or no cost, and can give you valuable information about your customers and competition. 5) Creative thinking, fresh ideas. An intern’s creativity is his or her greatest asset. Encourage your interns to think for themselves and offer suggestions. By providing a comfortable and frank learning environment, you’ll see their full potential develop, and be able to capitalize on the diverse points of view they can offer your company.
Ensuring a good fit
The best way to kickstart a healthy internship experience and keep interns flocking to your business is to meet with them individually at the start of the program to talk about their interests and passions. You may discover that they are interested in an entirely different experience than the one you have in mind, and can add value to your company in unexpected ways. For example, when we learned that an intern we had hired to blog loved collecting images, we created a new green wedding inspiration boards section of our site for her. Brides love it!
Once “on staff” be sure to show your interns that their opinions and work are valued, and to treat them as part of the team. Encourage your interns to hang out with each other after work and invite them to join you at industry events where they can network. When possible, casually link them to after hours job opportunities, such as babysitting for staff or working for pay on a special project, especially if their internship is unpaid.
Keep it going
Having ongoing internships at your business is one of the best things you can do for your company and for the 8.1 percent unemployment rate. Internship experiences help prepare students for future employment and can make an enormous difference in stretching your assets across your needs. Be sure to provide good role models within the company, and offer prompt feedback, to help shape your interns into the best task force money can’t buy! If you build a relationship with local universities, and provide quality internships for their students, they will send you a new batch of their best and brightest students every few months.
Internships are not just for the summer anymore — so start thinking about how your company could use an extra set of hands in September now, and get ahead of the curve!
Special thanks to all of the awesome interns at Green Bride Guide - especially Zoe Gorman, who offered ideas for this post.