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HR Connection: Talent on a shoestring: Internships offer win-win situation

Mary Stuart

What do Oprah Winfrey, professional golfer Tom Lehman, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein have in common? They all completed internships. Oprah began her career interning at WTVF in Nashville, Tom learned how to organize fundraisers as an intern in the athletic department at the University of Minnesota, and Dianne spent a year as an intern at The Coro Foundation.

This summer, many employers will strengthen their connection to colleges through internships programs. These programs offer short-term supervised work experience usually related to a student’s major field of study for which the student earns academic credit. For years, internships have allowed organizations to identify talent early and to expose that talent to their own business needs.

Why offer internships?

It’s hardly a secret that interns come cheaper than hiring full-time employees, enabling companies to add talent without getting buried in payroll expenses. And from a hiring standpoint, there is no better way to achieve entry-level recruiting. These programs provide employers with:

1. A temporary supply of talented, trainable labor. Interns are ideal for providing support on long-neglected, special projects.

2. An opportunity to screen interns, with an eye toward offering them full-time employment after college. This “previewing” also allows the intern to gain a realistic picture of the organization. If you choose not to offer the intern long-term employment, you can simply end the relationship after the agreed-upon period.

3. Access to cutting-edge knowledge. Students today are exposed to the most current information and technology in their fields — information that growing organizations need to thrive.

4. A positive community image. Not only do internship programs increase company-name recognition at colleges and with students, but they also help to portray the organization as one that’s committed to helping prepare students for the world of work.

To pay or not to pay?

It’s a point of debate among educators and employers whether interns should receive compensation, especially because some college interns also receive college credit. However, compensating interns can create a more formal relationship, which leads students to contribute in more meaningful ways. Furthermore, if the interns you’re pursuing are in high demand, offering an attractive compensation may be the only way to attract their attention.

If you choose to offer unpaid internships, understand that federal, state and perhaps local laws will require you to meet a set of criteria to ensure compliance. In general, unpaid internships are legal only if the student is considered a “trainee.” That means he or she receives beneficial on-the-job experience, does not displace paid employees and is not guaranteed a job at the completion of the internship.

For instance, giving clerical work to an unpaid intern violates the Fair Labor Standards Act because all assignments must be for the benefit of the unpaid intern rather than the employer. These compliance issues can be avoided by paying interns, because with pay they are considered “employees” under federal labor laws. The Department of Labor has issued Fact Sheet #71 to help determine whether interns should be paid; this fact sheet can be found with a quick Google search. The safest approach is to pay interns at least minimum wage with overtime in order to avoid these legal pitfalls.

Factors in a successful internship program

Organizations that have built effective methods for employing interns generally have incorporated most or all of the following elements:

1. Careful planning, buy-in and documentation. Senior managers must be committed to the internship program’s success and supportive of its goals.

2. A proactive recruitment plan. Internship programs are most effective when focused around schools where you can develop a reputation and a long-term relationship with the professors and the students. If any of your employees are alumni of the colleges you’re targeting, ask them to act as ambassadors. You’re likely to find such personal approaches more effective than advertising in local newspapers and trade journals.

3. A realistic perspective. Unless your firm has very high name recognition and a well-funded R&D department, you’ll find it difficult to land interns from the top technology schools. Recognize that students from local colleges are more likely to be interested in working for you — and to consider employment with you later.

4. Use of technology to get the word out. Post internship opportunities online. In addition to reaching a greater number of prospects, an Internet listing generally will include a link to your organization’s website — allowing students to do some homework on you before making contact.

5. The same care and attention to detail used in hiring regular employees. Look for interns who fit into your corporate culture and are truly motivated to learn.

6. An investigation into the legal implications of hiring interns. Know any limitations on non-paid internships. Consult the Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #71 and discuss with your legal counsel.

7. A meaningful assignment. Ensure that the intern takes on challenging projects, not trivial work, and not just job shadowing. Students are looking for real-time, hands-on experience where they can use and test the knowledge gained in the classroom, as well as develop skills that can be used later in their careers. The more outstanding the experience, the more the student and your organization will benefit, both now and after the student completes college, when he or she is weighing offers of employment.

8. A mentor. Interns need a mentor who is regularly available to answer questions about projects and company policies and procedures.

9. Assessment and revision. At the end of the internship, ask the intern to make a presentation to management on the value of the internship and areas that could be improved. Use this information to improve future internships.

Mary Stuart is talent acquisition manager for HR Works, Inc., a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving more than 800 clients throughout the United States. Based in Rochester with offices in Syracuse, HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals. To offer comments on this column or ideas for future columns, email stuart@hrworks-inc.com. This article is brought to you by the Rochester Affiliate of the National HR Association, a local professional HR organization focused on advancing the career development, planning and leadership of HR professionals. Visit www.humanresources.org for more information.

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