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Hire the Right Intern To Boost Your Business

Cheap help can be worth exactly what you paid -- or it can be priceless.

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by Elaine Pofeldt

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If you’ve been counting on a new crop of summer interns to help with projects like building a better presence on Facebook for your company, you’re not alone. A recent survey by Internships.com found that 53% of employers plan to hire more interns this year than in 2012. And you're likely to find a big talent pool. In the same poll, 65% of companies received more internship applications in 2012 than 2011.

In the best-case scenario, internships are a two-way street: You share your knowledge, while your interns help out and bring a fresh perspective. In today’s employment market, that perfect balance is not always easy to achieve.

Since the recession, many students—and their parents—have discovered that internships are almost a prerequisite for getting that first full-time job. As a result, you may receive applications from a lot of students who aren’t particularly interested in your company but just want to make sure they can break into the workforce later. If you aren’t careful, you could end up spending your summer teaching lessons like how to get to work on time.

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At the same time, employers have to raise their game to make sure their internships are worthwhile. Ross Perlin’s book Intern Nation: How to Learn Nothing and Earn Little in the Brave New Economy has sparked widespread discussion about how interns are treated. An internship that’s heavy on grunt work and low on learning opportunities just won’t cut it in today’s climate—and could hurt your company’s reputation.

To create an internship program that attracts the best talent at affordable prices, try these strategies.

Focus your search. The ideal intern “needs to be passionate and not only understand the company but the work they’re getting into,” says Rebecca Cenni, founder and CEO of Atrium Staffing, a staffing and recruiting firm in New York City that has helped clients find interns.Reaching out to people in your professional network who are familiar with your business is often the best route to talent, says Cenni. Or contact the career services departments of local colleges and universities.

To cast a wider net, post an advertisement on a specialized site like Internships.com, or even craigslist. If some applicants are based far from your office, don’t rule them out. Lots of work can be done remotely these days. The survey by Internships.com found that 33% of employers hired virtual interns in 2012, up from 20% in 2011.

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Don’t overlook older displaced workers as interns. Often, they bring valuable skills to the table, says Linda Wegner, 70, author of the book 3D Success: Changing Careers in Mid Life. Wegner has hired midlife interns to tackle writing projects for her writing and speaking business, Words of Worth. “I’ve had great interns who brought not only their enthusiasm for writing but the wisdom they acquired through life,” she says.

Screen carefully. Create a brief test that will reveal an intern’s aptitude—and give it to every applicant—so you don’t wind up facing unpleasant surprises later. Susan Lindner, 43, CEO of Emerging Media, a PR, branding and social media agency in Nyack, New York, typically meets prospective interns briefly by Skype and then, if they pass muster, invites them to the agency for an in-person interview and writing test. She reviews the test results with the candidates on the spot, paying careful attention to how they react to feedback. “If people can’t take constructive criticism well, that is an indicator,” she says.

Look for work experience. It’s easier to hit the ground running with an intern who’s already held at least one job.“If you’ve got a young person who’s never worked a day in their life, that’s quite a different person from someone who’s worked through high school and college,” says Tom Armour, co-founder of High Return Selection, a management consulting firm that advises companies in North America and Europe on hiring.

Many applicants will not have had a chance to work in your field. However, their track record at other types of gigs—and even extra-curriculars like sports—can be a good indicator of how self-disciplined they are, says Armour. “I love kids who have worked for Starbucks part-time,” says Armour. “It shows a work ethic. Someone else has trained them to show up on time, meet commitments. They usually have some sense of business—and customer service skills.”

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Up the ante on your program. If you’re competing for talent against big companies that offer robust internships, you may need to enhance your program. When her firm was located in New York City, Lindner teamed up with other agencies to offer a more attractive internship program than any single firm could. “Once a week, the interns would get together at one of the five agencies, and a managing director would talk to them about a particular area of PR,” she says. Sometimes, the agencies would bring in guest speakers, such as journalists, to deepen the interns’ knowledge of the field.

Compensate interns fairly. You’ve probably heard of companies tapping free intern labor to help with office grunt work. Don’t follow their example. Employers who offer unpaid internships must include training akin to what interns would get in an educational environment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Offering your internship for course credit through a local school or university will help you set up an unpaid internship appropriately. If you can’t offer this type of learning experience, you must pay minimum wage. Given how much value a great intern can contribute, that can be a small price to pay.

Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer, a website that aims to help self-employed professionals earn a good living.

Photo credit: Sturti/Getty Images