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Think You Should Hire an Intern? Think Again.

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If they haven’t already, ambitious college students have likely reached out to your company for a summer internship. On the surface, it sounds enticing to get an extra hand for the summer and possibly train a future hire. But bringing a college intern on board for a semester is not for every employer since not every company has the resources or temperament to provide a successful training experience for students. “There are definitely employers that should not have interns,” says Andrew Maguire, chief executive officer of InternMatch in San Francisco, an online clearinghouse of college internship resources and opportunities.

An internship is first and foremost a training program – not just low-cost help. We talked with Maguire and university internship coordinators about the most common reasons your business should steer clear of internship season this summer. 

1. You just don’t have the time. Training and mentoring a college intern requires significant time and effort, more so than for usual hires. You might need to create new processes and fill out regular paperwork with a school. Additionally, some students have never worked in real-world environments before and you might need to help them develop skills that you take for granted, such as writing professional emails. Interns’ industry skills are just developing too, and you’ll need to anticipate questions and even plan for revisions of work that you wouldn’t always need to do with a new hire. One of the biggest mistakes employers make is underestimating the time commitment involved, says Daniel Newell, Job Development/Marketing Specialist at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif.

The best internships provide a structured training and evaluation program overseen by a supervisor, says Newell. He recommends that employers also design a special project with defined goals and measurable outcomes for interns to complete. These are managerial tasks that shouldn’t be pawned off on a junior staffer, notes Sue Pye, Assistant Director for Experiential Education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.  A younger employee might be an effective mentor but doesn’t have enough management experience to coordinate a successful internship, she says.

2. You’ll never hire that intern. Internships assume a certain type of hiring pipeline into a company. Businesses that aren’t competing for junior staffers who will work their way up the ranks might not need internships. In fact, for these companies, the cost of training a short-term worker who might not ever be hired, is not a good return on investment. Netflix, for example, makes no secret of the fact that it has no internship program. In fact, one staffer writing on discussion site Quora explained, “Netflix is able to compete for senior level developers against other valley companies so there's no need to create awareness among early-career engineers, to create a career pipeline for training engineers/managers, or create a more positive image among college students entering the market.”

3. You really just need a part-time staffer. Don’t seek out an intern just because you could use help a couple of days a week. An internship is a professional development opportunity for the student, not free or cheap labor for the employer, says Pye. She vets employers to ensure internships are relevant to the students’ career interests and that supervisors and mentors will provide regular feedback and evaluation, she says. In addition, Rutgers requires that interns spend no more than a quarter of their time doing clerical work, says Pye.  

4. Your managers aren’t mentors. Companies might not want to admit this, but successful interns need to be supervised by someone who has the management and communication skills, as well as the interest, to train, guide and mentor them, says Newell. A manager who doesn’t make the intern a priority won’t be able to provide a meaningful experience, he adds. Not every company is suited to help college interns develop professionally, Maguire points out. Employers need to be honest about their interest level in helping someone start his or her career, he adds.

If you’ve had an unsuccessful internship experience, use it as a chance for some soul searching. A ‘lazy’ intern might not have been given enough to do. Those who seem ‘entitled’ or ‘not up to par’ were still hired by someone on your team, which might be a good excuse to review how you suss out any hire at your company. Students you say aren’t ‘self-starters’ might just not be mind readers and could use some more step-by-step direction from their higher-ups.

Samantha Drake

Written By

Samantha Drake is a freelance writer and editor in the Philadelphia area who specializes in business, legal, environmental, and general interest issues.