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How to Do Internships the Right Way

Two women working on a computer in an office.

Editor's Note: The DOL's test for when an intern is an employee has changed.

CHICAGO—Internships are not meant to be free help. They are not meant to replace an employee. And they shouldn't be used for busy work.

Internships are a great way for students to get real-world experience in a particular career and for employers to scope out potential new hires upon graduation. But when they are not well planned, they won't be successful for the interns or the employer, said Sharon Beaudry, a former HR director and currently an assistant professor of management and program director at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls.

Beaudry advised HR professionals at the Society for Human Resource Management's 2017 Talent Management Conference & Exposition to think long-term when designing an internship program.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Interns]

"It's a 'try before you buy' approach," she said. "You'll be able to reap the benefits later on."

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 72 percent of interns are offered a job, and 85 percent accept. Historically, the retention rate of hired interns is higher than other entry-level employees, Beaudry said. "Even though I think that stat is more likely for larger employers. It's probably 30-40 percent for smaller employers because they don't have as many entry-level jobs to offer."

The Essential Parts of an Internship

Beaudry outlined some of the basics of an internship program:

  • Internships must promote learning with specific learning goals.
  • Interns must be supervised.
  • Interns are required to work a certain number of hours.
  • Interns should be formally evaluated.
  • Interns can earn academic credit, but that is not a requirement. "If it's for credit, a faculty member is supervising them, so if you've got problems with that student, you've got someone to reach out to." But internships for credit also means that a faculty member will hold the employer accountable to make sure the intern is not just doing errands.

To Pay or Not to Pay

Internships in the for-profit private sector are often viewed as employment by the Department of Labor (DOL), and interns who qualify as employees rather than trainees typically must be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over 40 in a workweek.

Most students consider the compensation from an internship the least important factor when considering which to accept, according to NACE. About one-third of internships are paid.

"Keep in mind that if they are participating in an internship for credit it means that they are paying for the credit," Beaudry said. "That's something to keep in mind when you are considering whether or not to pay them."

The DOL considers unpaid interns trainees and the program must meet the requirements of a six-factor test:

  • The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  • The intern does not displace regular employees.
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern. On occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
  • The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

"You can get away with not paying, but you must keep within the DOL regulations," Beaudry said. "Factors to consider include your budget and students' needs. Are they living locally? Then maybe they are OK with an unpaid internship. But if they have to relocate to work for you, that is more challenging for them."

Some employers offer to pay for college credit, stipends and flexible hours so interns can have another part-time job if need be.

Where to Find Interns

The most important thing to know is that posting for an internship position earlier rather than later will net you the best results, Beaudry said. "The best students are applying in October for summer internships. If you post in May for a summer internship, you are dealing with the ones who have procrastinated or don't really care."

Beaudry recommended posting internship ads on college job sites and internship sites. "If you have a college nearby, work with them," she said. "They are more than happy to work with you."

HR can begin by contacting the schools' career services offices. "Post jobs with them, talk about projects you're working on and what your needs are," she said. "The school may set up curriculum around that need."

Another good idea for attracting students to your program is asking former interns who have since been hired to advocate for you. There are also paid services that try to match students and employers.

She advised HR to make the interview and selection process "real" and relevant. "Don't treat it lightly, because going through the hiring process is valuable experience for them."

Tips for a Successful Internship Experience

Beaudry outlined several tips to make the experience a rewarding one for both the student and the employer:

*Make sure the interns work on real projects, not busy work. "But it shouldn't be urgent or critical work," she added. "You don't want an intern working on an urgent project for you. Think of short-term projects, so they have a chance of completing it."

*Don't treat your interns like second-class employees. Encourage them to be part of your organization.

*Supervise them. Make sure you help them develop soft and hard skills. Offer continuous feedback. Give them a regular orientation, and go over acceptable work hours, dress code and professional behavior.

"Managing interns is a great assignment for an emerging supervisor," she said.

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