5 Essential Traits of a Great Internship Program

From strategy to compliance, internship programs are more complicated than just having a student make copies and get your lunch for you. Here's what you need to know to get it right.

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By Gwen Moran

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's almost summer internship season, and internship programs are on the rise. A recent survey by Internships.com found that 56 percent of respondents planned to hire more interns in 2014, up from the 48 percent that hired more interns in 2013. Sixty-two percent said they're going to invest in creating more structured internship programs.

That's good news, because Los Angeles-based internship expert Lauren Berger, author of Welcome to the Real World: Finding Your Place, Perfecting Your Work, and Turning Your Job into Your Dream Career, says that the number one thing students want from an internship is a beneficial learning experience. Creating that takes some effort, but she says small to mid-sized businesses often have an advantage in structuring such programs. Because there are fewer people, there are typically more opportunities for interns to get involved in many areas of the company and, in doing so, learn more. Plus, a strong internship program can be a great way to recruit fresh talent.

Related: The Savvy Startup's Guide to Recruiting Interns

Here are Berger's recommendations for creating a strong internship program:

Define the role. Berger says it's important to spend some time thinking about the tasks you're going to need your intern to accomplish, and what he or she will learn from them. Good internships give the individual a better understanding of the job, company and industry overall. They are less about fetching coffee and more about observing and helping people who know what they're doing and can teach the intern.

Train. Start with an orientation session for the internship – even if it's one-on-one – and then provide appropriate skills training from there. Your intern may need to learn how to use the cloud-based or software platforms that are part of your operations or may even need something as basic as a session in how to work the phone system. Once you have the list of tasks the intern will perform, note the areas of training that will be needed for him or her to perform them well, Berger says.

Related: How to Run an Awesome Unpaid Intern Program

Appoint supervision. Interns don't need babysitting, but they do need to have someone who is available to answer questions and provide feedback. Berger warns that interns should never be left alone in the office if no one else is working. They're likely not trained for the tasks that may be demanded of them and it could be considered a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Stay compliant. Speaking of the FLSA, it's critical for employers to understand how it applies to your internship program. For example, unpaid interns must meet strict criteria, including that the employer derive no immediate benefit from the intern and that the intern not displace a regular employee. So, for example, your company can't rely on an intern's sales efforts to make its numbers for the month. Berger recommends that unpaid internships be limited to no more than 12 to 15 hours per week. The U.S. Department of Labor has a good fact sheet, but it's a good idea to check with your attorney to ensure you're not breaking any rules.

"Interns often impede your day-to-day life, so it's important that you teach them as many systems and processes as possible and then have someone available to them who can answer questions and make sure they don't make mistakes that can hurt the company," Berger says.

Review regularly. Since most interns are only on the job for a short period of time, it's important to give them feedback early and often. Schedule evaluations every three to four weeks, along with a sit-down midway through the internship and at the end of the engagement, Berger says. Give the intern the ability to ask questions, and correct behavior or performance if necessary.

Related: The 25 Highest-Paying Companies for Interns

Gwen Moran

Writer and Author, Specializing in Business and Finance

GWEN MORAN is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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