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Companies welcoming interns must do groundwork to ensure success

Companies welcoming interns must do groundwork to ensure success

web-sig_lauren-dixon_In last month’s column, I waxed poetic about internship programs. OK, maybe not poetic, but I enthusiastically shared the positive experiences we’ve had with our interns at Dixon Schwabl over the past three decades. Hopefully, my endorsement encouraged you to consider launching an internship program.

If you do decide to start your own internship program, here are some best practices to keep in mind.

Here’s how NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, defines internships: “An internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.”

Note the emphasis on learning and gaining experience as it relates to interns’ classroom activities and formal education. This is important because it reminds us that internships are meant to support, reinforce and expand upon what students are studying and learning in school.

Have realistic expectations

Though I’m a huge believer in the value of internships for both our interns and our team, it doesn’t mean internships are for every company and at all times. If you’re going through a busy period or are short-staffed, it’s best to hold off until you have the ability to provide proper mentoring.

Another thing to keep in mind is internships are not supposed to be a free source of help during busy times. Actually, it’s the opposite: You give interns free supervision, training and nurturing—and that takes time and resources. If what you really want is an extra pair of hands, you should not be considering an internship program; this is work for a temp employee, freelancer or contractor.

Realistic goals must also be in place for an internship program to thrive, which goes for both parties. Interns should have tangible goals about what career skills and experiences they hope to gain. And you should have measurable goals for them, as well as for your program. An intern may come to us with the goal of learning how to write a positioning statement, for example. And we may have goals of helping our intern evaluate the relevance of that positioning statement and of giving one of our team members supervisory experience.

Before you go too far designing an internship program, you should also make sure the majority of your team members support the idea of having interns. Hopefully, most will be excited to help nurture the next generation of talent. But some might find it distracting, and those concerns and hesitations should be acknowledged and explored.

One way around this is to have interns rotate through departments, or to rotate which departments have interns throughout the year. Team members can take turns mentoring and supervising interns, as well who distributes the rewards and responsibilities of the experience.

Provide meaningful work and clear direction

I have personal memories of internships where I didn’t have enough to do, and it’s an awful feeling. Sure, it was boring. But beyond that, it affected my sense of self-worth and left me feeling isolated. Other times, I had plenty to do, but didn’t have the proper instruction to get it done, so I felt frustrated and lost confidence. That benefits no one.

More than anything, your interns will want to be busy and engaged. They’ll want to contribute and be productive. And they’ll want to be successful. So plan projects ahead of time and provide the direction, tools and resources necessary for them to be successful.

Try to avoid just “keeping them busy” with grunt work and menial tasks. That’s not to say you have to avoid assigning less-challenging tasks. But when you do, try to connect them to a learning experience and balance them with educational, real-life opportunities.

At Dixon Schwabl, we assign carefully selected pro-bono marketing communications assignments to our interns. Real nonprofit clients with real needs. Right here in our community!

We set our interns up for success and deep learning by providing clear, detailed written and verbal instructions; ongoing and ready guidance, examples and role models; plenty of background information; and access to the tools, resources and supplies they’ll need to be successful.

Every semester, the nonprofit clients and pro-bono projects change, but the meaningful, beneficial work and real-world learning opportunities never fail to make a positive impact on both our interns and for our pro-bono, nonprofit clients, their beneficiaries and our community.

Paid or unpaid?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which requires for-profit companies to pay employees for their work, interns typically are not “employees” by definition. And if they are not employees, they do not need to receive payment for their work, per FLSA guidelines.

But how do you know for sure if your interns are considered employees? The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division says courts use the “primary beneficiary test” to determine whether an intern is an employee. The test assesses the extent to which:

  1. The intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Poll them before they go

At the end of every intern session, we take the interns to lunch as a group both as a celebration of their successes and also as an opportunity to gather feedback about their experiences. The conversation usually takes on a life of its own, but we always make sure to ask two questions: what was their best, most memorable experience and what could we do better to improve our internship program.

Being altogether creates a safe environment and our interns have given us candid, valuable, actionable suggestions that have helped us evolve the opportunities we offer for the better. Interns even came up with the idea for Dixon Schwabl University, affectionately known as “DSU,” where we hold regular, structured learning opportunities for our interns on a variety of topics. So be sure to solicit feedback at the end of each intern session.

As I mentioned in last month’s column, we’ve hired dozens of former interns over the years. I’ve witnessed time and again: When each intern session ends, the relationships begin anew.

Lauren Dixon is CEO of Dixon Schwabl Inc., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a best place to work.