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Ask the experts: Reap rewards by investing in student interns

By Virginia Bridges
vbridges@newsobserver.com

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Patrick Vernon, a former entertainment entrepreneur who has been teaching entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School since 2006, gets all sorts of requests for student interns. Unfortunately, small businesses are too often just looking for cheap or free labor.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Vernon said. “A hastily written ‘intern wanted’ paragraph widely distributed to various student groups will yield nothing.”

The most successful internships are treated like the investment they are, said Vernon, executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, where he directs the Venture Capital Investment Competition and the Carolina Startup Challenge.

Like most investments, Vernon said, early planning pays compounded dividends.

Here are Vernon’s edited ideas on improving your internship rate of return.

Don’t go for cheap labor for the sake of cheap labor. Invest in a process that will recruit top talent and give the intern an excellent experience. You will be repaid in many ways. Vernon reconnected with a former intern two years ago when she was completing a master’s degree. Timing was perfect, and Vernon now has a star employee.

Compete for talent. The most talented kids have lots of options. Make sure to offer a good opportunity, especially compared to others.

Define your offering in their terms. Offer them some combinations of benefits, such as bullets for their resume, the potential for a permanent position later and access to mentors. Some other benefits include skill-building and cash or some other tangible compensation. Spell out explicitly what you are offering and what you expect in return.

Set a tone of excellence. Excellence starts with how you recruit. Represent your company the way you’ll want your intern to represent you.

Pay your intern. Even if it isn’t much, and even if it is not cash, hand out some form of payment. Be creative. You are investing time and risking your company’s reputation. Paying interns demonstrates that you value their time. The cash investment is not nearly as high as the intangible investments you are already making.

Bridges: 919-829-8917
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