Six Tips to Create a Successful Internship Program for Your Company

shutterstock_132769313An internship should be something that benefits the company and provides a meaningful experience that teaches a young person on-the-job skills and an insider's look into your industry. Otherwise, all an internship is good for is to provide some small padding for a resume, without sharing any real knowledge. And even worse for you as an employer, it's a time drain and a major headache.

The idea of interns as “free labor” is a myth (nothing in life is free, haven't you heard?). Like any relationship, if it's all take and no give, the other person is going to feel taken advantage of and eventually stop putting effort into the relationship at all. Then as an employer, you have just one more thing you have to deal with yourself.

But creating a successful internship program at your business doesn't have to be a job unto itself. I've outlined six keys to ensure that your internships are valuable to both the company and the intern. While every business environment is different, any company can use these techniques to enrich the internship experience.

1. Orientation and Training
No matter the size of your company, successful internships should include some sort of formal orientation and training period, rather than just “on-the-job” learning. This helps the intern acclimate to your work environment. I recommend spending the first week simply training interns on the basic functions of the office — how to use the phones, computers, file documents, etc.

Some businesses have an “intern manual” or “intern packet,” which gives some structure and understanding of how to dress, when to arrive, and what are the overall expectations for the intern. It also can serve as a confidentiality agreement, protecting your business. And once you create it, it's easy to update and use again with the next batch of interns.

A lot of younger, upstart companies think an intern manual doesn't fit into their “laid back” work environment, but it can be helpful in covering the basics and also help orient the intern, who is likely intimidated by the whole process. A manual shows them that you know what you're doing and that others before have been through this program and that it's a worthwhile experience.

2. Create Goals for Your Intern
An intern likely walks through your door with little knowledge of your industry and zero knowledge of your expectations for them. This is why it is crucial to set goals for them from the outset.

An intern will only be with your company for a set period of time, so it's important not to overwhelm them with things that they will never accomplish in one semester. I would recommend giving them a “project” that has a clear start and finish. It is best not to have interns on projects where they are the only people working on the tasks since interns can become disconnected with the organization. Provide support for the intern but also let them know that you expect them to complete the project by the end of their internship.

3. Provide Meaningful Work
The days of interns getting coffee and picking up your dry cleaning are over. Most interns today are looking for meaningful work experiences that will help give them an advantage when they enter an increasingly competitive job market. But that doesn't mean that you can't have them do some “busy” work, such as filing or data entry — just make sure these administrative duties are balanced with more substantive work.

There's a responsibility from an employer to offer some meaningful experience for the intern. In exchange, the intern provides assistance and an extra set of hands or eyes on a project or task. This should be true whether it's a paid or unpaid or “for class credit” internship.

4. Be A Mentor … Or Assign Someone Else To Be A Mentor
Being a strong mentor to your intern is important. This doesn't mean “My way or the highway.” Afford the intern some latitude and you may be surprised what a young mind and fresh set of eyes can see.

However, that shouldn't mean that an intern has complete freedom. A mentor should be a guiding hand and supportive voice. One way to do this effective is to provide a physical “space” for the intern within the general vicinity of the mentor, which includes a desk, chair, phone, and computer (if necessary). This allows the intern to feel they're a part of the process and allows the mentor to be readily available and keep a set of eyes on the intern.

The mentor has to make a serious commitment to helping the intern learn new information, gain a broad understanding of the company, and engage in critical thinking and problem solving.

5. Let Them See Behind The Curtain
In most intern situations, a young person is not only trying to gain job experience to put on a resume, but they're exploring different possible employment situations. They're likely measuring if they even want to pursue a career in your specific field.

So don't be afraid to show them “behind the curtain.” Share with them the triumphs and struggles of your business and give them a true understanding of what a career in your field entails. Let them sit in on managers’ meetings. Let them be in the room when important decisions are made. But also be sure not to scare them off. Remember it wasn't such a long time ago when you were a bright-eyed youngster trying to find your way in the world.

6. Find Their Strengths And Interests and Use Them
One benefit to having a younger person in your place of business is that they often bring valuable skills to the table, such as proficiency in social media. Leverage their eagerness and skills into helping you and your organization.

Take time to talk to your intern and find out what specifically brought them to your door in the first place. Obviously, there was something interesting about the business or your specific company that made them apply for the internship. Use this point of interest to motivate them and even create tasks that involve whatever that is. This will ensure the internship is rewarding for the intern and probably give you the most positive experience as an employer. It will likely remind you of why you got involved in this business to begin with.

Allison Rice, Director of Marketing for Amsterdam Printing (www.amsterdamprinting.com), has extensive experience in sales and marketing. At Amsterdam Printing, a leading provider of custom pens and other promotional items such as personalized wall calendars, Allison is focused on providing quality marketing materials to small, mid-size and large businesses. She regularly contributes to the Small Business Know-How blog.