Seven Tips for Developing a Small Business Intern Program

Spring is just around the bend. If thoughts of summer interns are dancing in your head, you’re not alone. A good intern program can increase your company’s visibility in the field, position you for positive PR, build mentoring skills in your employees, and promote work in your field, among many other things. Now is the time to build your intern program so that you’re ready to attract top candidates to join your team.

In this blog post, we distill the main takeaways (and added a few tips of our own) from the comprehensive 30-page Employer Guide to Creating a Meaningful Learning Experience. The Guide was put together by the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority and, in collaboration with all of the RI institutes of higher education. Use these tips to develop a solid intern program to benefit up-and-coming professionals — and your small business — for years to come.

Here are seven tips for developing a killer small business intern program.

1. Set your expectations.

A solid intern program is about creating a mutually beneficial relationship that pours into the next generation of employees while bringing in energy, creativity, and potentially cutting-edge knowledge of developments in the field. An intern shouldn’t be viewed as free or cheap labor. Expect to devote a significant amount of time into training and management as you help them translate classroom learning into practical applications and skills in a professional setting. The Employer Guide suggests interns should be doing no more than 20% “busy work” (such as filing, data entry, or other duties that would be more appropriate for a secretary or office manager). However, they can be trained to take over routine professional tasks that are important for their development, such as managing databases, tracking inventory, or producing newsletters. And having an intern tackle these type of tasks can provide a significant benefit to your business in freeing up regular employees to focus on new projects or branch out creatively.

Think about who your target intern population is (high school, college, grad, international, or adult learner). If coordinating for credit, students will have a number of additional regulations and details to conform with, but could also bring direct cutting-edge knowledge of developments in the field. If pursuing college students, consider working with an institution’s career center to develop appropriate expectations for the intern’s role and for your role in supervising them and ensuring they have a positive experience. If they are students, the internship should directly enhance their learning — and their studies must also remain a top priority.

It’s important to set your expectations for what you hope to gain from having an intern. Will they primarily support ongoing work across a department, or will they be tasked with developing a specific project during their tenure?

2. Budget your time and resources.

In this “carefully monitored, meaningful learning experience,” you’ll need to train an intern, mentor and supervise them, and evaluate/reflect with them at several points throughout their term. Whether full- or part-time, a typical intern experience lasts about three months, or an academic term. You’ll need to designate an employee to be the intern supervisor — someone prepared for both for general supervision, and also an expert in areas the intern will be performing work to ensure their learning goals are met. You’ll also need to ensure that you can provide a “designated and insured office space” and sufficient worker’s compensation insurance for paid internships.

3. Pay your intern.

While the Employer Guide discusses considerations both for paid and unpaid interns, we recommend small business owners offer paid internships. Top candidates will pursue paid internships before unpaid ones. Internship pay should be communicated upfront and is not usually up for negotiation. Pay for interns should be consistent across departments. We recommend researching intern salaries within your profession and pegging to technical level. The Employer Guide also specifies interns should be categorized as W-2 employees, not 1099 contractors. The RI Governor’s Workforce Board offers a program to subsidize eligible internships.

4. Craft your posting.

You’ll need to stand out from the crowd to attract top talent. You’ll really want to sell two things: how your intern program will provide a rich professional experience for the worker, and why your business is the best place to get it. The Employer Guide recommends being specific and clear about:

  • Organizational culture and mission
  • Qualifications required
  • Intern responsibilities and potential projects
  • Skills that will be developed
  • Duration and terms of internship (part- or full-time, flexibility)
  • Compensation (salary and/or credit)
  • Clear information about how to apply, including contact information

We also recommend sharing any particular qualifications and strengths of your team — let potential interns know why your business is the BEST place to get the knowledge and skills they need.

Once you’ve developed a rock solid posting, talk with career center staff to determine the best places to post online within their institutions to reach the best job candidates. Also, if appropriate, consider posting to job boards within your profession.

5. Make your offer formal.

As with hiring any employee, make sure all of your communication around hiring an intern is formal. Make a formal offer and confirm all details, start/end dates, and compensation/benefits. 

6. Onboard them as you would any other employee.

If you don’t have a comprehensive onboarding process in place, now’s a great time to make one. Welcome them to the office and introduce them to relevant employees, and ensure your employees clearly understand the intern’s role. Clearly lay out your expectations for professionalism, dress, and other workplace policies. Show them where the coffee is. Include them in employee appreciation events and team meetings, where appropriate. These small actions build team morale and loyalty, which will reap rewards both during their internship and down the road if they become colleagues. 

7. Debrief and give/get feedback.

At least once during the internship, and at the end, offer formal feedback to your interns on their strengths, performance, and room for growth. This is critical to any learning experience. We recommend challenging them to articulate what they’ve learned and how their education and work experience complement each other. And get feedback on how your intern program and supervision are helping them meet their goals, and where you could improve.

Hungry for more info on launching an intern program? The full   also features information about legal requirements and regulations, as well as sample learning contracts and contact information for the career centers at RI institutes of higher learning. You can also read more about the benefits of interns and find internship resources from the Governor’s Workforce Board.

Now go out there and score some amazing interns!

I didn’t link to the guide everywhere I mentioned it, but I did link to it again here since I was suggesting further info it has. Definitely open to your advice on how I’ve linked and cited.

The way you’ve done it is perfect. I like that you gave it a full citation on first reference at the top of the blog post, and shared it here at the end for further reading. Nice work!