From the October 2000 issue of Startups

To you harried start-up entrepreneurs, coming across an MBA candidate in search of an internship can make you happier than a 6-year-old who finds a Matchbox car in a Rice Krispies box. It helps the intern, too, who gets to learn the ropes, make valuable contacts and compile a resume longer than two paragraphs.

But before loading up the office with fresh faces, stop and think what your goals are in using interns. Inviting people to handle any aspect of your business without knowing enough about them can be risky. With thought and preparation, however, you can get help without jeopardizing your business or alienating clients. Here's how:

  • Draft a description for every position you hope to fill. Include information on the duties, skills needed, supervision and training provided, where and when the person will work, and what his or her title will be. This will not only screen in qualified, interested candidates, but also sharpen your own focus of the job.
  • Ask all candidates to fill out an application, which should include sections for qualifications and experience, basic identifying information, criminal convictions, and serious motor vehicle violations. Include a "consent" portion that gives you permission to do a background check, including contacting references.
  • Interview all likely candidates. "Face time" will tell you if this person will fit in and has the motivation to work without pay. Trust your gut-sometimes it's more accurate than all the paper you could gather on a person. Don't rush through your decision, as you could easily be wrong.
  • Learn how to motivate people. Take it from Katy Watkins, president of a volunteer-run Ohio alumni association: "Although we had a clear mission statement," says Watkins, "volunteers really didn't know what the goal was. When the executive committee decided to renovate a building, it gave volunteers something to grasp on to. For me, the key to motivating and using talent is to perpetually have an event planned."
  • Train interns. You may not be a corporation with a huge HR department, but you can assign mentors and send your staff to workshops.
  • List activities your interns will be involved in, and determine whether your liability and accident insurance 1) covers volunteers at all, and, if so, 2) covers relevant activities. If not, beef up coverage fast. Your premiums will stay as low as possible if volunteers are well-trained and supervised. Try Costello & Sons Insurance for information on general liability.
  • Keep expectations realistic: Not all interns are equally rabid. As Watkins points out, "You must tap in to the reason volunteers give their time (besides picking up skills): Some want to socialize; some want to socialize, some want to give back to the community; some just want something to do. You must attempt to fulfill their needs through the [company's] actions, while working toward its mission."
  • Know the law. There's a strict federal law called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that sets the minimum wage and the maximum number of hours an employer can make workers work (without paying overtime). In order for someone to be classified as a "volunteer"-and therefore exempt from the FLSA-the person doing the work can't replace an employee or impair the employment opportunities of others by performing work that could otherwise be performed by a regular employee.
  • Congratulate yourself for staffing your business while starting someone on the road to a well-informed, satisfying career. While it's not quite a free ride, interns can be among your most enthusiastic workers and may someday land on your management team. Like businesses, college students grow up too!

Brain Food

Before you recruit any interns, get to know these organizations, which offer searchable databases for interns and registry sections for employers:

Contact Sources

ExcitePR, mtan@excitepr.com, www.excitepr.com

McDonough & Associates, (917) 679-8773, pattymcdonough@mindspring.com.