Intern Central
December 9, 2008 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Please share your experiences with hiring and managing interns.

We are a 80-100 employee company in NH with some interesting project work we'd like done to improve our business. It's work that seems well suited for an intern to do and like work that would provide good learning potential for the student (not grunt clerical work). But we've never used an intern before.

There are some great guides on *how* to set up an internship program online, but I'd love some real world feedback from people who have either set up such a program or managed interns. Or former/current interns with "business helpful" feedback about what worked/didn't work about their program.

1) Did you get what you hoped for out of it?
2) Do you feel the time and resource investment paid off?
3) Did you offer a paid or unpaid internship?
4) What tasks did you have the intern do?
5) What would you do again/do differently?
6) Has anyone heard of getting grant money to hire an intern (we are a for-profit company, I'm guessing grants are for non profit only?)

posted by mazienh to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My experiences as an intern and as a manager have all been engineering-related.

(1) As an intern, yes, pretty much always. As a manager, yes for the most part, but interns take a surprising amount of management compared to a full-time employee, particularly if they're only working part time or a flexible schedule (as some of my interns did during the school year).

(2) Yes.

(3) I don't know what your industry is, but in my case, engineering internships are pretty much always paid. Though (and this sort of applies to #6) the way it worked in my last company is that interns were billed out to customer projects at a junior engineer rate, which was approximately twice what we actually paid the interns, so they were actually profitable. The more I find out about the 'real world' the more I realize this is pretty standard.

(4) I've had interns work on a team together for their own project, work individually doing grunt work on real projects, and work in a department just doing random helpful tasks. Choose whatever is easiest for *you* to manage. Don't give them anything mission-critical, but also have something prepared to give them if and when they finish really early. Have there be some kind of end-of-internship deliverable that they can point to on future resumes and say "I did this!"

(5) I'd change how much I had prepared for them in advance; my company kind of surprised themselves with a huge influx of interns one summer and we didn't have things set aside for them all to do when they needed it.
posted by olinerd at 9:30 AM on December 9, 2008

Seconding the "surprising amount of management" thing.

Even the smartest and most energetic interns I've had have been paralyzed by the fear of doing something wrong. It takes a while to get them comfortable.

It's almost always been worth my time as a manager though.
posted by tkolar at 9:35 AM on December 9, 2008

From a former-intern point of view: the most awful thing is to not have enough work. Internships are pitched to students as a way to get "real world experience" and still have time for school, and are becoming more and more important for finding a good job once out of college. So an intern is most likely going to come to you wanting to do something more than data entry. You've mentioned that this is "project work," which sounds good - if it's something the intern(s) can run with while checking in with you routinely, great.

As others have mentioned, you will need to spend a lot of time managing - making sure the student is on task and not doing homework or playing on Facebook because there's nothing left to do that day.
posted by bibbit at 10:02 AM on December 9, 2008

Best answer: I had a couple finance industry internships in college and then worked with interns a few times as a full-timer. The internships were massively important to me--both for what I learned and for resume-building purposes. The one problem I had (and saw with others) is that it's hard for a manager to understand an intern's sheer lack of experience. I had no problem executing the relatively simple tasks given to me, but I really struggled to understand just what the heck the company was doing at a higher level. When I did begin to grasp that, it was because I got face time with full-time employees (senior or junior) and could ask broader questions that pertained to the job/industry but not necessarily the immediate task at hand. If left alone to execute one task after another, I think interns suffer from tunnel vision and fail to really get the bigger picture.

So, in short, my advice is to carve out time for the interns just to learn from and talk to full-time employees. Weekly lunches or something like that could be a good format.
posted by mullacc at 10:51 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

As someone who has been on the intern side of things, I strongly urge you to pay the intern if it is a for-profit company. Doing work for no money, even if it comes with great experience, seems like a huge let-down. Both my internships were paid, one of them with minimum wage - but hey, it was something. And it made me feel more valuable to the company because I was included in their payroll.

Second, my internships were extremely helpful because I was given tasks and even entire projects that mattered to the company - not simply filing papers or stuff on the back burner. It looks like you're geared toward giving them useful work, which is awesome. I hope it's a rewarding experience for both of you.
posted by wundermint at 11:18 AM on December 9, 2008

pay your interns. students are poor and you don't want to worry about them spending their nights bartending to make rent. especially when they come from out of town, the sudden extra expenses can make a severe dent in your average college-kid fund.

I third the notion of surprising amount of management required but most of the interns I met made up for that in spades with enthusiasm. they're trying to get a foot in the door, to make contacts and show what they can do. they are hoping for a job come graduation. they're also looking to learn from you guys. I'd treat this as an excellent opportunity to find potential employees via a trial period. give and you will get.
posted by krautland at 11:21 AM on December 9, 2008

seconding bibbits comment, it is really frusterating as an intern to not have enough work to do. especially if your interns are really interested and wanting to take advantage of the opportunity, they;ll want to play an active role and have something learned/to show for their time with your company.
in my last internship it was really frusterating to me that there seemed to be nothing for me to do at times, or to hear "you'll be working on this" but not have the materials or directions to start the project.

to me it seemed really important that the company be organized enough to be able to provide the support and direction of the interns.

also, important that they feel like part of the general team/project/company as a whole... not as side workers that do behind the scenes stuff
posted by nzydarkxj at 11:32 AM on December 9, 2008

nthing make sure they have enough work. Also make sure that the requirements for their work are really specific because it's likely that the interns will have no idea about what exactly you're expecting to receive from them.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 12:29 PM on December 9, 2008

Think about whether you want the internship to be credit earning - where you have a contact person at the university, such as an adviser for the intern.
posted by at 1:39 PM on December 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all for the feedback - any more is welcome as this is a "Sell" to the higher ups to make this call. I see it as a win-win
posted by mazienh at 7:27 PM on December 9, 2008

Best answer: I've managed like 18-20 interns; I kinda lost count.

1) Did you get what you hoped for out of it?
Mostly yes, sometimes no.

2) Do you feel the time and resource investment paid off?
Mostly yes, sometimes no.

3) Did you offer a paid or unpaid internship?

4) What tasks did you have the intern do?
online research, writing, mapping, phone calls

5) What would you do again/do differently?
[Some of this is going to be obvious to you if you already manage people]
Selection of the interns is a really important step. If you run an internship program over time, you can calibrate the level of experience and professional maturity that the tasks tend to need. (Eg, I know that interns who are out of college generally do much better on the projects in my department. Another person where I work knows that people who are already in grad school are generally too experienced to find that work at all challenging.) In the application process, if possible, have them send you whatever it is you're going to have them do. Eg, a map, a writing sample.

Definitely be prepared to give them the direction they need. Prepare to spell out exactly what files they need, what phone numbers they need, what background they need. Ditto the idea that they may really have no experience. You want to make sure they understand what they are going to do and that they can do it. (I once asked someone to make a spreadsheet then later felt bad when I realized she was sitting there trying to teach herself Excel.) Give them deadlines, otherwise they may be more or less thorough than you wanted them to be and generally suffer from not fully knowing how long you want them to spend on the task. Ditto "also have something prepared to give them if and when they finish really early." Set up a protocol for how you'll check in. Do you want them to email you when they're done or when they have questions? Do you want to check in on them (fairly often)? (This would keep them from coming to ask you questions when you're in the middle of a thought.)

There's a tricky balance that you'll come to about what level of direction you'll need to give each person. Can you say "write up an four-page memo on Topic Y like this one we did last month about Topic X. Can you get me a draft by the end of the day tomorrow?" Or do you need to say, "See those section headings: that is going to be your outline. Why don't you start with this main section -- Best Practices? The fastest way to find those is to read and summarize six or so reports by other organizations on Topic Y. Why don't you find some and read them, looking for common themes, and we can discuss what you're finding out later today?" Or do you need to say, "I'd find those reports by checking the website of the 'US Topic Y Institute' and the 'American Association of Topic Y-ers' and by googling 'Topic Y Best Practices.' Try to find six and I'll check back in an hour or so." This is where the interns' professional and educational background, and their intellectual maturity, come into play. You can see that by the time you're telling people how to find reports online, you may not have done a good job of matching the project to the intern, since you're starting to spend more time explaining how to do things than it would have taken you to do them.

Transitions and record-keeping are important. Interns are there for what seems in retrospect like the blink of an eye. Tell them where you want them to put every file, otherwise you'll want something they did after they've gone back to school and won't know where it is. If it's something that someone needs to clearly remember and "own" later, it may not be an ideal intern task unless they'll have time to document everything. Have the spring intern orient the summer intern whenever possible so that knowledge passes directly instead of going through you.

I have found I like to have two interns at a time, because when they need someone to bounce ideas off of, it doesn't have to be you, and they feel less isolated. If you start them at the same time, orientation is faster, but if you start them at different times, then one can answer the other person's questions instead of them collectively feeling like "the people who don't know anything," and in my few experience, this has led to them generally answering their own questions together more often (or maybe that happened just by chance).

6) Has anyone heard of getting grant money to hire an intern (we are a for-profit company, I'm guessing grants are for non profit only?)
Haven't heard of that.
posted by salvia at 10:24 PM on December 9, 2008

Oh, one last thing. Interns can be kinda awesome, particularly if you like teaching people or talking to young people about the direction they want to go with their life. And they're interested in the field, so they usually remind you why you liked it.
posted by salvia at 10:26 PM on December 9, 2008

One last thing -- some interns will be totally amazing super-stars. And I have to give all the interns respect for being willing to work for free (in some cases) to help advance an organization's missions and to develop their own career.
posted by salvia at 1:19 AM on December 10, 2008

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