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How to Create a Successful Internship Program

Matt D'Angelo
Matt D'Angelo

Build a better business culture with a successful, legally compliant internship program.

Internships aren’t just about grunt work anymore. With the right program, you can develop young talent and lay a foundation for recruiting brilliant young minds to work for your company. Smaller companies especially have an opportunity to edge out larger competitors by providing interns with opportunities to develop and staying in touch after graduation.

“We’ve hired former interns to become full-time employees multiple times,” said Liz Wessel, co-founder and CEO of WayUp. “I like to think of it as a two- to three-month interview.”

WayUp matches employers and job candidates seeking full-time roles and internships, which has allowed Wessel to get a glimpse into the internship programs of several companies. WayUp hired (and will be paying) interns for this coming summer as part of a development program that includes guest speakers and lunch with Wessel.

Small businesses have a big opportunity when it comes to interns. By developing and working with interns, you can foster growth in an inexperienced individual who could one day become a major player for your company.

The first step is establishing the right kind of program and paying your interns to ensure you’re attracting talent that can contribute to your organization. Here’s how to do it.

1. Establish an intern program coordinator.

Having a person in charge of your interns is crucial to building a program that pushes candidates and ensures they’re getting the most out of their experience. The best part is, for small businesses, this position doesn’t need to be a separate full-time position. Wessel said that WayUp’s internship program is run by two coordinators who work in full-time roles for the company. She said these individuals contribute about five hours a week to the program, and the responsibilities don’t impede their full-time obligations.

Internship coordinators can build a program that ensures your interns are having a collective learning experience. Steven Benson, founder and CEO of Badger Maps, is an example of someone who puts in extra effort to develop interns.

“During the internship, I teach classes on various business topics, give career advice, do trainings to make them successful at their job role and help them develop valuable skills,” Benson wrote in an email. “Interns at Badger are executing on major projects from beginning to end, and thereby get meaningful work experience.” 

2. Give each intern a mentor or “buddy.”

Providing a mentor means giving interns an avenue for personalized feedback on matters that extend beyond their work. You want to provide a dynamic feedback experience for the intern, so assigning them mentors from upper-level management may not be the best idea, since they’ll likely already be receiving feedback from their direct supervisor.

Instead, provide your interns with junior-level employees to create a relaxed relationship that promotes professional growth and development. After all, if this is an intern’s first corporate experience, they may have questions that they don’t feel comfortable asking their manager.

3. Set goals and workloads.

Setting goals for your interns and revisiting their progress throughout their tenure is another important step in development. Wessel said that often, interns will work on two or three major projects, depending on the length of their internship. The key is tracking their progress and making sure there’s a defined beginning, middle, and end to their work.

“It’s really nice for an intern to feel like they’ve come in, they’ve started something, and they’ve completed that, as opposed to them feeling like they’ve … been working on something and they never get to see it through to the end,” Wessel said.  

4. Make intern development a daily commitment.

As your interns get into the swing of things, make sure you have some structure set up so they are constantly receiving feedback and are on track with your goals. This is an important step in providing a personalized experience, but it’s also crucial for you as a business owner – with the right feedback, you’ll get the right kind of work from your intern.

Josh Skalniak, a public relations manager with Fingerpaint Marketing, said that each week, managers meet to review what each intern is working on and develop detailed to-do lists for the coming week. These meetings are for the managers only and provide a basic framework so that interns don’t get lost in an abstract corporate environment.

“We all get to learn who is assigning [interns] work and how much,” said Skalniak. “While we could simply ask the intern how their workload is going, we often find that interns are eager to please and don’t speak up when they are overworked. The meeting gives us a broad picture of their workload and keeps us from overloading them.”

Wessel said that managers should also have weekly one-on-one meetings with interns to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

How you structure your internship program depends on your business’s needs. However, one key insight is to ensure you’re constantly communicating with the interns. Otherwise, they may drift from their responsibilities and lose sight of their role within the company.

“[If they] have never worked in a corporate environment before … they might not realize they should speak up about the fact that they are lost,” Wessel said. “They might not even realize that they’re lost – it’s part of being so junior.”

5. Stay in touch.

Once your internship comes to a close, try to maintain at least a tenuous connection with your former interns. There’s no telling what opportunities they could move on to and what doors they could open for you in the future. Staying in touch with interns acts as proactive networking – by keeping in contact, you provide the opportunity to reconnect in the future.

Of course, another great reason to keep in contact with good interns is if you want to offer them a full-time role once they graduate. A good internship program acts as a training ground for young talent. You can filter out interns who aren’t a good fit for your company and discover new talent that could one day serve your company on a full-time basis.  

What not to do

Running a great internship program is as much about avoiding bad practices as it is about implementing great ones. Besides obvious bad practices, like giving your interns menial tasks that don’t offer any chance for development, there are some other practices that Wessel and Skalniak outlined.

  • Avoid alcohol: Your intern may be under 21. Don’t put them in a position where they could feel pressured to drink. It could also be an uncomfortable situation for an intern who may think they could get fired for drinking with co-workers.
  • Don’t overlook an intern: Interns need guidance. You can’t expect them to speak up like a full-time employee would when there’s a problem or they’re confused about what they need to do. Providing too much flexibility can result in interns who aren’t working toward the goals you’ve set for them.

Structuring your internship program

These tips and best practices are a starting point. How you set up your internship program will be specific to your business and reflective of your organization’s values. It’s important to foster strong communication between your intern and multiple sources, like mentors, managers, and other interns, and create a collective experience where an intern can feel like their work contributed to your overall organization. By developing bright young minds and fostering talent in your interns, your company can retain great people and be the starting point of illustrious, successful careers.

“We’ve created a program and environment that enables [interns] to be successful and thrive at Badger as well as in their future jobs,” Benson said. “This is obviously a big investment on our part, but that is how many of our former interns got jobs at Google, Apple, LinkedIn, Square, Salesforce and a bunch of other cool companies.”

The other aspect that should never be overlooked is that you should pay your interns. Paying your interns will allow you to access talented candidates who may otherwise have never applied. Plus, it may be illegal not to pay them minimum wage. Federal labor laws, as well as some state’s laws, may require it.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) offers a six-part test to see if your intern can go unpaid:

  1. The internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The full experience is purely for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern doesn’t replace regular employees but still works closely with existing staff.
  4. The employer receives no immediate advantage from the work the intern does; in fact, operations may be impeded.
  5. There is no job guaranteed at the end of the internship.
  6. Both the intern and employer know there are no expectations for wages

Paying interns “makes them feel appreciated; it makes them work harder,” Wessel said. “It will allow for greater diversity when it comes to you hiring, because if you’re not paying your interns, it probably means you’re only going to attract people whose parents … can [financially] support their kids. If they’re doing real work for you, you should pay them.”

Image Credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock
Matt D'Angelo
Matt D'Angelo
Contributing Writer
I've worked for newspapers, magazines and various online platforms as both a writer and copy editor. Currently, I am a freelance writer living in NYC. I cover various small business topics, including technology, financing and marketing on and Business News Daily.