A federal appeals court in early July gave employers, once again, flexibility to use unpaid interns legally when the work serves an educational purpose. That decision overturned a lower court decision that made hiring unpaid interns for for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations incredibly difficult. The language surrounding the last ruling on what was deemed an acceptable unpaid internship was crystal clear and left very little room for misinterpretation. As a result, our organization Practice Makes Perfect (PMP) decided we wouldn’t take on any interns unless we could compensate them. This meant fewer educational opportunities for students and less support for our growing organization. The new ruling means we will have greater capacity to take on interns in the future and provide educational opportunities that would also aid our organization’s growth.
With that said, more interns doesn't necessarily mean greater productivity. In fact, I’ve heard dozens of intern horror stories. For entrepreneurs starting out, interns can be your greatest ally or your biggest nightmare. Nonetheless, when we founded PMP I was 18 years old and was capable of adding value within an organization. My perspective successfully interning at a few companies and now having had several interns at PMP has taught me that if you structure the opportunity correctly that it can in fact be mutually beneficial.
Here are four tips to maximize your interns’ effectiveness:
1. Assign them an internship project.
This is a long-term task that you’d like them to complete before their internship ends. On the interns end, it will provide them with a self-directed opportunity to conduct research, ask questions and have something to present. This could be an individual project or a project that multiple interns can share and work on. This also helps when you’re overwhelmed and don’t have time to assign a new task or project. That way the intern always has something that they can work on.
2. Give them someone to report to at the company.
Make it clear who their manager is when they start. Interns should be encouraged to speak with any one on your team, but they should also have someone that they can go to in the event that others aren’t available.
3. Make them feel included.
Do you have companywide meetings? If so, include them in the conversations. We have a weekly team meeting where we discuss pressing challenges and our interns are asked to attend. If you want them to act on information, then they should have full knowledge of the things that are happening. We also value transparency at our company.
4. Prepare a list of tasks.
This takes some time on your end but will help you in the long run. Before our interns started, we made a list of things we needed them to get done. That way, they could add value for us as well.
You should set aside some time and create a list of things you need to get done and then let go of some. Give yourself ample time to review and correct things. The reality is that not every intern is going to be great, so calibrate your expectations. Nine out of ten times it is the employer’s fault for not adequately screening or providing the appropriate training, but it happens.
If you’re not getting value from your interns at this point in the summer, it is not too late. The best interns find ways to add value without getting in your way or asking you for more work usually two to three weeks into their internships. With that said, if you do not invest the time during those first two weeks really explaining what you do and how it works, your interns won’t feel empowered to add or create value.
I’m glad the courts overturned their previous position on unpaid internships. For me, internships were crucial to my skill development, and we need more of them in the workplace to train our next generation of leaders. Any constraints placed on those opportunities hurt our economy in the long run.