Saturday, August 15, 2015

How to Acquire an Intern

I’m on vacation with my family up north, but I’m still keeping up with space news. A Twitter posting has gotten me thinking and I have a little bit of time to write my thoughts. The question: How do you acquire an intern?

I’m surprised by the question. In my experience, there are an overwhelming number of potential interns for a limited number of internships. Students usually throw themselves at companies/organizations that offer internships. My first thought was: If you don’t know how to acquire an intern, you shouldn’t acquire an intern.

The question was posed to advertise a local lecture panel that a technology group is hosting. For $5 - $10 and two hours, several speakers will tell the audience how to find and get interns. I can’t imagine what they’ll talk about for two hours. I’m tempted to attend just to find out how five speakers will fill two hours on this topic without getting very repetitive.

I’ve held several internships in my early career, some paid, some unpaid, some official and established, some unofficial last-minute arrangements. I’ve enjoyed all of them. I’ve found all of them to be valuable learning experiences and worthwhile commitments. I’ve also heard experiences of friends and colleagues who have had poor internship experiences or who have witnessed poor internship experiences. How to design a good internship is more important and more difficult than how to acquire an intern.

The following is my opinion from my experience, for what it’s worth:

Write a job description with a clear project outline and deliverable. Never, ever hire an intern without a clear plan for what he/she will be doing with his/her time. The worst internship experiences are the internships on paper, positions that look good on a resume but give the intern no responsibilities and no accomplishments. At the end of the internship, the intern should be able to say that it was more than sitting at a desk, attending meetings, and meeting a few people. Treat the intern like any other employee who can produce something valuable. Requiring a deliverable at the end of the internship helps to focus the intern’s attention and time. Writing a job description will help you to focus on who to hire.

Promote the internship. Larger companies/organizations will have interns visiting their websites to find opportunities. Smaller companies/organizations may not have that luxury of interns coming to them. Social media is your friend. Use whatever internet and social media methods are available to you to advertise opportunities widely. A good opportunity will be spread widely. Contact key educational institutions to help spread the word. Research how students find internships by typing phrases like “list of space internships” into Google and find key listings or websites where you can advertise. Enlist the assistance of previous interns and current employees. Skip paper advertisements and direct mailings that will most likely go straight to the trash.

Recruit and treat interns as you would any other employee. Interns are temporary employees, whether paid or unpaid. To treat them otherwise does them and your company a disservice. Interns may need more guidance and oversight, but they should be treated as professionals, regardless of their age. High school and college students will feel disrespected if you treat them as children. The recruitment process for interns may not be as extensive as a permanent employee process, but there should still be a process. Interns should be expected to work and produce as any other new employee just starting out would.

Decide ahead of time how you will handle logistics. Non-locals will have more needs than locals such as travel and lodging arrangements. Foreign nationals may have more needs than citizens depending on workplace security policies. Interns may have office needs. Interns may also work remotely from around the world. Interns should have one or several supervisors who need to be prepared to teach and train. Interns should be held accountable to one or more supervisors who will expect that their time is being used productively. Be prepared to issue proper documentation if education credit is being issued for an internship.

To pay or not to pay. Both paid and unpaid internships are valuable. Interns will be interested in your opportunity either way. If you decide to go the unpaid route, your pool of potential interns may be limited and you may not get the most highly qualified applicants. Look into the legality of not paying workers. I’ve held three unpaid internships and there was never an issue, but I’m not familiar with the rules. Younger or less experienced interns will not expect much in terms of pay, but older or more experienced interns will be more selective.

I work for a small start-up. Every single talk I’ve given to a student group lately has asked me whether my company hires interns or had students approach me after the talk, often with resumes in hand. Students contact me via LinkedIn asking for internship opportunities. If I were to post an internship opportunity right now on my Twitter account, even with my small following, it would get retweeted several times. Students are thirsty for the opportunity to become interns. If you can’t find them, you don’t deserve them. Kudos to any company or organization that offers this valuable experience to eager workers who desire to learn.

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