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How to create an internship program

By Glenn Burkins
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting CharlotteĀ’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

Whenever I gripe to friends or advisors about the enormous workload required to run a small business, they often respond by suggesting I hire some “unpaid interns” to help with low-level tasks.

As well-meaning as those suggestions may be, they simply don’t square with reality. Establishing a credible internship program takes time and effort – in other words, lots of work.

Now that schools are letting out and students are rushing to find summer employment, I decided to research the topic, so I called Angela Tsuei-Strause, director of internship and career programs at Queens University of Charlotte, and Mimi Collins, director of communications at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

For starters, both noted the number of internship programs has grown dramatically in recent years. At Queens, for example, no student may graduate without first completing at least one internship, Tsuei-Strause said. (And, yes, even Charlotte City Council is weighing a plan to hire paid interns.)

Collins said NACE research indicates that retention rates are higher among employees who first worked as interns for their companies.

“It’s just common sense,” she said. “They walk in the door as a new employees with their eyes partially opened at least. They have already had a taste of the company culture, so they have a little bit more experience than someone coming in cold.”

For those considering an internship program, Collins and Tsuei-Strause offered these guidelines:

Pay or no pay: U.S. labor laws state clearly that interns working at for-profit companies must, in most cases, be paid. Exceptions are allowed when internship program meets narrow guidelines. (Those guidelines can be found on the U.S. Labor Department’s website by searching the phrase “unpaid interns.”) Collins, however, said she strongly believes that all internship programs should offer pay, if only to create a more diverse candidates pool. “If you don’t pay your interns,” she said, “that means your pool is only those students whose parents can afford to foot the bill for them over the summer.”

Plan ahead: Determine in advance what types of work your interns will perform. Collins and Tsuei-Strause said interns should be given meaningful assignments and not be bombarded with low-level tasks unrelated to career development. “Whether it’s a research project or organizing a database, it’s important for that student to have ownership of something,” Tsuei-Strause said.

Make someone responsible: Internship programs work best when someone is designated to oversee them. That person should meet regularly with interns to hear any concerns they have as well as to impart information from the company’s perspective. Ideally, Collins said, the internship coordinator would not be a direct supervisor for any of the interns.

Hold an orientation session: Interns should start the program fully aware of job requirements and company policies. If your company has written manuals, share them during the orientation session. This also would be a good time to assign a mentor to each intern, assuming your company is large enough.

Make the intern feels welcomed: Make sure that each intern has a workspace and necessary supplies. Tsuei-Strause recommends regular check-in or occasionally taking interns to lunch. Be supportive of things well done and encourage interns to ask questions or discuss industry-related topics or articles they may have read.

Conduct an exit interview: Don’t let your intern leave without finding out what worked well and what didn’t. This also is a final time to impart constructive feedback. If you think you’ve found a keeper, Collins suggests offering that intern a permanent position, right then and there. “If you can make a job offer, even before they go back to campus, you are going to beat out a lot of employers,” she said.

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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