6 Ways to Create a Successful Intern Program An intern should be so much more to you than free labor. He or she may actually be a prospective employee.

By Doug and Polly White

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


College interns can be an effective source of labor as well as prospective employees for smaller businesses. According to Steven Rothberg of College Recruiter, approximately 75 percent of college students participate in an internship or co-op program. With more than 20 million college students, that means that more than 15 million students are available each year to work as interns. That is a lot of potential help in a tight labor market.

Related: 5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Internship

At our company, we have employed several interns over the years, and have found that applying a few basic principles helps make the most of the experience for both the intern and ourselves. Too many companies view interns simply as reduced-cost labor and put them to work performing the most menial duties without regard for the skills and knowledge the intern should be developing.

We're different: We believe that companies accepting interns have an obligation to ensure that these young people have a learning experience. Your company should do the same. To this end, we suggest six tips:

Define a clear project that can be completed during the internship. Have a plan for what your intern will do. When possible, we like to define a discrete project that the intern can see through from start to finish. Make sure that the project is germane to your business. Remember, a significant part of the value an intern gains is a clear understanding of what it is like to work in your industry.

For instance, one of our interns helped us create, implement and analyze the results of an online survey for our website. This was a project that could be completed in the ten-week internship period.

Identify measurements for success -- As you would do with managing any other employee, develop objective, quantifiable goals. Make sure that the goals are achievable, with effort. It doesn't help to have goals that require little effort or goals that cannot be realistically obtained.

Related: Done Correctly, Your Internship Program Could Generate Serious Cash

Spend time helping the intern succeed -- You wouldn't expect a new employee to succeed without training, supervision and coaching. Creating a positive experience for your intern will require at least the same level of effort. If your intern can succeed without your help, he or she won't learn much; the task is too simple. To create a robust experience for your intern, invest in this person.

Expanding on the example above, we worked closely with our intern to create the survey and included work with our web-development team to design the user access and experience. Because our intern was a marketing major at a local college, this experience added greatly to her skill set.

Broader exposure to your business -- Make sure that your intern gets full exposure to your business. One of the big pieces of value your intern will receive is a good understanding of what it is like to work in your industry. This person may decide that your line of work isn't right for him or her, or, alternatively, actually decide to make a career of it. Help your intern reach that potential decision by helping him or her understand your business. Take time to explain your company's core values and your strategy for delivering value to your customers.

We also suggest spending time learning about your intern. Find out this person's goals and aspirations. Assess how well you think he or she would fit with your company. While you have no obligation, you may wish to offer employment once the internship ends. Interns are an excellent source of new employees because you've had a chance to see them work before you make the hiring decision. Make sure you have assessed this person's fit for your firm.

Prepare your intern for success beyond your firm -- In many cases, your intern will not join your company when the internship concludes. Perhaps you have no open positions. Perhaps this industry isn't right for him or her, or the intern isn't a good fit. Regardless of the reason, prepare your intern for success after the internship ends. Help get this person's resume into good shape. Show how to add the experience gained through your internship. If you can say positive things, offer to serve as a reference or write a letter of recommendation. Make your internship as valuable for the person holding it as you can.

Give candid feedback -- Like any employee, your intern will have demonstrated some strengths and some opportunities for improvement. Help him or her grow by providing kind, but candid, performance feedback. In some cases, this is the most valuable thing an intern takes away from the experience. A performance appraisal is also often required by the learning institution involved. However, even if it isn't required, take the time, because feedback is important.

Related: 3 Ways to Make an Internship Invaluable, Regardless of Pay

Interns can benefit your business. They can be a low-cost way of getting real work done. They can also be a pipeline of talent for your company. However, it is your obligation to provide an experience that is beneficial. Ensuring that your intern receives the full value of the experience will require some effort on your part. But following these six tips will give you a good start toward providing a wonderful internship experience.

Doug and Polly White

Entrepreneurs, Small Business Experts, Consultants, Speakers

Doug and Polly White are small business experts, speakers and consultants who work with entrepreneurs through Whitestone Partners. They are also co-authors of the book Let Go to GROW, which focuses on growing your business.

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