Hiring an intern – 5 tips on how to develop an internship program for your company

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By Melissa Walker


Morgan Dezenski worked as an intern for 1.5 years at Access Systems before becoming the company’s first marketing employee.

More and more small businesses are hiring interns and developing internship programs, which employers have discovered can be a smart recruitment strategy.

Almost 90 percent of students who took part in an internship program said they would accept a full-time job from their internship employer, according to a study by National Association of Colleges and Employers. That same study reported that employers hire more college students for summer internships each year.

Internships can be a great way to hire employees and test them out on an interim level and give them skills necessary before adding them as a full-time employee. Every year, thousands of people apply for internships to develop job experience, receive college credit or to get their foot in the door with a specific company.

The U.S. Small Business Association recommends employers take several steps to set up an internship program, starting with an assessment of the company’s needs.


  1. Do you need interns and how will the program operate?


Interns can be a valuable asset to a company, but first and foremost they are in a training program; they are not just low-cost help, according to Entrepreneur magazine.

First, the business owner must determine whether there is enough work to support the intern, a physical location for the intern and how long the internship will run.

Entrepreneur advises that internships are not for every business. The company also needs to have the resources necessary to train, supervise and mentor its interns, along with a management structure with the temperament to provide a successful training environment.

Time is one of the most important factors, and one of the biggest mistakes employers make is underestimating the time commitment, says Daniel Newell, a job development and marketing specialist at San Jose State University. Training and mentoring a college intern can require a significant amount of time and effort, and the business owner will likely need to fill out paperwork for the college or university.

Haley Christensen, human resources director for Olsson Associates
Haley Christensen, human resources director for Olsson Associates

Julie Eggleston, the human resources director for UTC Aerospace Systems in West Des Moines, says managers know they will dedicate a large chunk of time to interns the company hires.

“The manager is very involved in mentoring this person and providing technical resources for them, and they create a development plan for the person before they come in,” she says. “It’s a huge time commitment for that leader, and they know that going in.”

Some students have never worked in a real-world environment and may need help developing skills such as how to write professional emails, Entrepreneur reports. They may have more questions than the average employee and could need time to revise their work if it doesn’t meet company standards.

Access Systems, a provider of information technology hardware solutions for commercial businesses in Waukee, is part of an internship program for local high school students. These students work in a more supervised environment in which they help install hardware on computers and laptops before they are sent out for on-site installation. The student interns work with Access System technicians side by side and receive the support needed for the work they are given, Human Resources Director Charlie Kiesling says.

Emily Petrowski, a junior at Drake University, applied for a paid marketing internship at Access Systems in Waukee so she could get real-work experience to help her decide whether she is pursuing a career path that interests her. She works 20 hours a week and helps with the company’s social media and other marketing campaigns.

Thus far Access Systems’ three paid interns have all been in the public relations/marketing department because that was an area the company was trying to grow, Kiesling says.

Kiesling says she hopes to hire an intern for her department in 2017 to assist with employee growth: Access Systems is growing an average of 35 percent each year.

“We’ve had people approach us for accounting internships, but we didn’t have the resources we felt to provide the structured learning environment,” she says. “We go at such a fast pace, we didn’t want them to get grunt work and be left in the dust.”

Business owners also need to realize that an internship is short-lived and sometimes only for the summer months.

Haley Christensen, director of human resources for West Des Moines engineering and design firm Olsson Associates, says that’s a downfall of hiring interns.

“Just as they’re really feeling comfortable and feel like they can do a lot of work on their own, the summer is over, and they’re transitioning back to school,” she says.


  1. What tasks, duties will the intern perform?


Business owners need to consider what they want to accomplish and gain from having an internship program before hiring interns.

Forbes suggests employers create a list of tasks that will help them ease the workload but also allow the intern to gain valuable experience. A training guide should explain what is expected of the intern, to whom they ask questions and report, how his or her work will be reviewed, what procedures he or she needs to follow and inform him or her of where to find necessary tools to complete work.

Eggleston says the company analyzes what its needs will be each semester when hiring interns.

“What are some of those projects that we’ll need a little bit of assistance in or a new set of eyes?” she says. “We’ll have a project in mind we want them to work on. Then we go out and actively recruit. We already know the role that person will do, and we look for those qualities when we’re recruiting.”

Olsson Associates hires a couple of interns each year to add to its 20-person staff. The interns work with the company’s technical teams, which means they could be testing materials at various sites, designing a site or surveying land. The company hires college-age students with majors that range from civil and chemical engineering to mechanics and electricians to architects and those with agricultural fields of study.

“They’re pretty much like a full-time employee,” Christensen says. “We give them real work on real projects.”

She says company officials know that they will take time to invest in each intern and give him or her the skills necessary to perform the duties. Olsson Associates’ internship program also gives the company’s current employees an opportunity to mentor the interns and develop their leadership skills, she says.

Business owners should make sure their internship programs are professional and organized in order to keep expectations high. The West Des Moines Police Department outlines all of its requirements, including dress code, in its internship application.

Employers also need to consider that the intern will be looking for a good experience and will share his or her thoughts with others.

“Definitely allow the intern to take ownership of projects,” says Morgan Dezenski, who worked as an intern for 1.5 years at Access Systems before becoming the company’s first marketing employee.

Julie Eggleston, human resources director for UTC Aerospace Systems

She says she always felt supported during her internship and received the knowledge and skills she needed to take the lead and develop projects. As an intern, she was pitching press releases that led to media coverage and updating the company’s social media sites.

“I felt I had a piece of the project and moving it to the end result,” Dezenski says. “I never felt like the quote on quote intern.”

The West Des Moines Police Department hires college-age interns to assist with training, community response or the criminal investigative units, as well as the Westcom Communications Center and WestPet, the department’s animal control unit. Prospective interns must meet a 2.5 grade point average and other criteria, consent to a background check and go through an interview process with the department’s police chief.

“Most of the interns we have are very computer and tech savvy individuals and can assist us in generating certain documents for specific units, capturing data and other statistical information needed for reports,” says Sgt. Tony Giampolo, spokesman for the department.

The West Des Moines police interns are not paid and work for a semester. Interns are also required to complete a presentation that summarizes their experiences and present it to the department’s senior command staff once the internship is completed.

Mandy Kewitsch, a senior aerospace engineering major at Iowa State University, has been interning at UTC Aerospace Systems since last summer. Her internship, which will last through the spring semester, has given her a chance to work in different aspects of engineering. She works with teams to solve actual business issues or initiatives the company is undertaking.

“What’s nice is I’m getting real-world experience that I don’t get in school,” Kewitsch says. “It’s important for the company to offer me an opportunity to take what I’m studying and actually apply it in the real world.”

She says it was also important that her internship give her opportunities to grow professionally and develop relationships with her co-workers.


  1. Where will you find quality interns?


Internships require many of the same steps as hiring a full-time employee. The business owner will need to have a job description with real work assignments and objectives.

Some interns may be ambitious enough to approach the employer themselves about seeking an internship. However, there are many outlets business owners can work through to find quality interns. College or community college recruiters are often a good resource. Des Moines Area Community College has a wide range of programs and majors and works with businesses to put students into internship positions.

Olsson Associates has had success finding interns through job postings on the company’s website, by attending college career fairs at Iowa State University, and asking its employees to help find students who are interested, Christensen says.

UTC Aerospace also utilizes Iowa State’s engineering program and posts internship opportunities on its website. The company also partners with an organization called INROADS,  a nonprofit that provides career training and internships for underserved youth, to recruit prospective interns.

Business owners can create relationships with professors and other advisers to spread information word of mouth about the position and for recommendations of students to consider. Some educators may allow the employer to speak to their college class about internship opportunities.

Dezenski says she stumbled upon the Access Systems internship through Drake’s website. She has since helped the company recruit two other marketing interns through her alma mater.

Access Systems also belongs to Waukee APEX (Aspiring Professional Experience), a program where local businesses collaborate with Waukee High School to bring real-world applications into high school coursework. The company has had three high school student interns through that program, Kiesling says.

Some college and universities operate their internship programs where the student receives college credit instead of pay. Businesses can register with schools’ programs, which helps increase the level of accreditation associated with their internship and increases the pool of applicants it will receive.

Online job sites also are frequently used to post internship opportunities. The U.S. government connects small businesses with students through the Department of Labor’s Summer Jobs+Bank program. Businesses can post internships directly with any internet job site that is participating including Internships.com, AfterCollege.com and LinkedIn.

West Des Moines police find interns in the same places they recruit police officers: local colleges and universities, churches and other businesses. Many times, individuals will request information about the internship program when police are recruiting for officers, Giampolo says.


  1. Will you pay your interns, and what are the legal requirements?


Forbes says small businesses need to pay their interns. They have not yet built themselves up to the point where they can go without paying an internship based solely on the prestige of the company.

Businesses that compensate their interns will receive higher quality prospects. The money saved by hiring an unpaid intern will probably be spent in lost time to teach him or her things a more qualified candidate would already know. A bachelor degree-level intern is paid about $16.21 an hour, according to the small business administration.

Employers who cannot afford to pay their interns can still offer internships, but they must know the legal requirements. An unpaid intern cannot do any work that contributes to the company’s operations. This includes tasks that help run the business such as documenting inventory, filing papers, answering emails and more.

Unpaid interns often shadow other employees and perform tasks that don’t have a business need.

Some companies offer benefits to interns such as access to social events, paid holidays and recognize the employee’s education time as service time if he or she is hired into a full-time role. Other benefits include scholarships and one-on-one mentoring.

Business owners must comply with labor laws when it comes to interns. Rules regarding workplace discrimination apply to interns. Employers must also comply with workplace health and safety laws and ensure they carry workers’ compensation insurance for their interns if state law requires it.

The rules are listed in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is available on the labor department’s website: https://www.dol.gov/whd/flsa.


  1. Could you hire interns as full-time employees once the internship is complete?


Eggleston says UTC Aerospace Systems only hires interns the company may want to consider as full-time employees.

“When we’re looking at someone and selecting interns, our goal is to retain them and employ them after graduation,” she says. “One of the things we’re looking at is their future potential.”

Last year, three of their interns were offered positions, and two accepted jobs with the company.

Christensen says Olsson Associates uses its internship program to scout o

Sgt. Tony Giampolo, spokesman for the West Des Moines Police Department

ut prospective employees and then potentially hire them for full-time positions. About 15 percent of the West Des Moines office employees started as interns before they were hired.

“It’s a way for us to get the talent before they look elsewhere,” she says.

The company’s president — Olsson Associates has more than 1,000 employees in seven states nationwide — began as an intern and worked his way through the ranks. Employees in all types of roles from management to designers began as interns, Christensen says.

Giampolo says the department has hired some of its interns as full-time employees. The internship program gives people the opportunity to learn about law enforcement and the individual units within the department.

Kiesling says Access Systems’ college interns helped expand the company’s marketing department, so it made sense to hire a full-time employee to continue growing that aspect of the business. The company also wanted a younger employee to fulfill that role so it could benefit recruiting efforts as well. The company has 20 open positions and continues to hire more employees each year.

Kiesling says those younger interns have been able to help the company create a stronger social media presence and improve its search engine optimization. A new website and marketing materials are in the works.

“What we found is that, as we continue to grow, we need to attract (millennials) from a recruiting standpoint differently, and we need to create a cultural environment where they feel welcome,” Kiesling says.

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