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How to Build an Effective (& Legal) Internship Program

  • Posted by Jordan Posell
  • February 14, 2018

Hiring interns is an excellent way to energize your startup with fresh, young talent while also providing them with the training and real-life skills to help launch a career down the road. In addition, bringing interns on board can give new managers an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of overseeing other workers. Ideally, interns can later turn into full-time employees who already know the ropes and fit in well with your startup culture.

The most recent stats prove this.

According to the

National Association of Colleges & Employers

2017 Internship & Co-op Survey

, employers estimated they hired 3.4 percent more interns in 2017 than they did in 2016, Among those polled, 41 percent reported they increased their intern hiring in 2017.

But before you contact your local college and blast out your internship listing on social media, there are several guidelines that should be followed when building an internship program from the ground up.


Consider the needs of your startup

Ask your managers for their feedback on whether it’s feasible to bring on interns. Do they have the equipment and space to handle interns? How many do they need? Is there enough money in their respective budgets to pay them? Do they have the time and resources to devote to training them? Interns often come with a substantial learning curve.

If your managers are excited about the idea of mentoring interns and having extra help, find out which areas of their department would be best served by interns before drawing up a plan.


Check the legal requirements

Each state has specific compliance standards, which include minimum wage, workers' compensation, safety and harassment rules. Be sure to classify your interns properly, meaning whether they’re paid or unpaid.

In light of the recent guidelines set forth by the Labor Department when it comes to hiring interns, reviewing the legalities has never been more crucial. Unlike recently, when startups felt legally compelled to pay interns thanks to a slew of lawsuits filed against companies that had improperly used them as cheap labor, the new guidelines “make it easier for companies that want to hire interns but don’t want to pay them,” according

to an article

by the

Los Angeles Times.

The key message is making sure the gig will benefit the intern and not the company.

The article further reports the new guidelines help create a program that "would be similar to that…given in an educational environment." And, here’s another caveat all companies need to bear in mind: the intern’s job “should complement, not displace, the work of paid employees.” To avoid running afoul of current regulations, check with an employment lawyer about your responsibilities and obligations.


Get company-wide support

Make sure your team is on board with your plan. Nothing will doom an internship program faster than if the team members responsible for overseeing the interns aren’t prepared to devote the necessary time and energy to mentoring them or give them a laundry list of personal errands to do such as fetching dry cleaning and coffee, taking lunch orders and scheduling dinner reservations. (Those tasks should be given to a paid assistant.) These types of tasks will not foster an educational environment for the interns and most likely won’t lead to a positive outcome for your staff or your interns.


Devise a detailed plan

After you have secured the support of your team, create specific rules for the internship program. Outline policies about the types of projects interns will be assigned, the nature of orientation and evaluation/performance reviews. If you have a guidebook that outlines

HR services for startups

, the section on what your company can and cannot do with interns should be detailed and underscored in importance.


Select the intern supervisors and a launch date

Decide who will manage the intern program and assign responsibilities, which will help run the intern program smoothly. After this is done, then spread the word that your startup is recruiting interns. If necessary, work with a company that specializes in

HR services for startups

to help you find and recruit interns efficiently.


Partner with local colleges and universities

Contact college placement or career planning/development offices and explain that you’re interested in hiring their students as interns. Some schools offer credit to students as part of an internship program. When an internship is unpaid, students often choose to accept credit as a fair exchange. If you decide to offer credit, make sure you follow the school’s guidelines, which may include writing a review of the intern’s performance for the school when the gig is up.


Interview and hire

After you post the internship and receive applications, handle the interview process as you would for a regular job at your startup: Vet candidates thoroughly with background checks and follow up with references. Include the supervisors who will be responsible for managing the interns in the decision-making process. Again, involve a consultant who specializes in


services for startups

if you need assistance with the interviewing process. Once you hire the intern(s), offer an orientation or onboarding process before putting them to work.


Have interns start around the same time

If you hire more than one intern, then it might behoove you to have them begin their internships simultaneously. A big reason for this is that it will likely increase camaraderie among their other peers at the same company and perhaps hike up their enthusiasm for the internship. In addition, in can cut down on training time since you’ll be able to onboard interns all at once.


Have bi-weekly or monthly intern check-ins

For however long you hire an intern (usually, it’s for a semester although, in some instances, it could be six months or longer), supervisors who are managing interns should check in on a semi-regular basis with the intern to make sure he/she has a clear understanding of his/her duties and to ensure the internship is meeting its objectives.


Ask your interns to present what they’ve learned at the end of the internship

Interns will likely have to write a summary of what they’ve learned from their gig for their school (especially if they’re undertaking the internship for credit), but you may want to facilitate the process by having them give an informal presentation to their supervisor or department at the end of the internship. Again, this is to help them fulfill the purpose of the internship, which is to provide them with real-life work experience.  

Hiring interns is a great way to introduce young, promising candidates to your startup while providing them with the real-life work experience and training to help them transition into the professional world after graduation. Interns can infuse the workplace with energy and fresh ideas. And you never know, today’s intern could one day be tomorrow’s CEO. Happy hiring!


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