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What interns are really for

I’ve been coming across a number of stories lately touting the use of interns as a cost-saving measure during the downturn. And they worry me. Recent grads, feeling pressure to make some sort of progress in their career — even if it doesn’t come with a paycheck — aren’t really in a position to protest demands that they work for free under the guise of “learning” — even after they’ve graduated. But I am. Internships should be about professional development, not about finding cheap ways to get your administrative or other work done. The Department of Labor has its own guidelines, and you should make yourself familiar with them before you bring in a single intern, paid or not. Aside from legal requirements, employers should keep in mind that there are good business reasons for offering good internships to young workers — reasons that trump any short-term cost savings derived from having the intern handle your filing or try to run your marketing department on his own.

Here are my 3 hallmarks of a good internship program. Does your organization’s measure up?

  • Well-defined objectives for the student. You must know at the beginning what the intern is expected to learn from the experience. Keep track of his progress throughout the semester.
  • Substantial tasks. What could your intern possibly learn standing in front of the copy machine six hours a day or fetching your Starbucks? This is even more insulting if they are forking over tuition to their college to earn credit for doing this. Instead, have them quietly join you in high-level meetings and work at your side as your pull together key projects.
  • Regular mentoring. Internships are in large part about grooming potential employees. So much of that involves “soft skills” that are are best imparted through regular, informal feedback. Spend time with your interns and find out what their goals are. How can you help them meet them?