91% of employers think that students should have between one and two internships before they graduate (source: Millennial Branding Student Employment Gap Study).
91% of employers think that students should have between one and two internships before they graduate (source: Millennial Branding Student Employment Gap Study).

Two summers ago, Southwest Exteriors, in San Antonio, took on an intern. Greg, a college student majoring in industrial engineering, spent two months of his three-month internship working with the company’s window and siding installation crews. The last month of his internship was spent documenting, piece by piece, the sales-to-production process.

“We learned that there was a big gap between how long we thought something should take and how long it was actually taking,” owner Scott Barr says. That information was used to improve efficiencies at the company.

Set for Success

Internship programs benefit a business in two ways. Like Greg, interns can take on a task that needs to get done but which overstretched employees simply have no time for.

Such programs are also a great way to recruit new staff. Eric Woodard — author of Your Last Day of School, a book about internships, as well as a blog about creating successful internship programs — likens an internship to an “extended interview.”

Woodard says that when internships don’t work, it’s often because companies fail to set expectations, either the intern’s expectations or their own. And key to making an internship successful is assigning someone to manage the intern’s day-to-day activities. At Southwest Exteriors, that person was general manager Brian Schroller.

Barr, who has found interns through his social networks, says that the best way to approach creating an internship is to identify the intern’s capabilities and strengths and to match them to a specific need or project within your business. For instance, for one of its internships, Southwest Exteriors brought on a marketing student who was given the task of reviewing the company’s database of email addresses.

Rules to Follow

Many colleges and universities now offer internship programs. Some even make internships a requirement for graduation. Programs are often seasonal and typically last 10 weeks, though there is no set standard.

Internships can be paid or unpaid, but there are Department of Labor rules, and don’t make the mistake of seeing interns as cheap labor. In broad terms, whether or not you pay depends on the nature of the work. If it benefits the intern — as a college credit — the internship can be unpaid. But an intern can’t be brought in to displace a regular employee, and it should be made clear that the internship doesn’t entitle the intern to a job once the internship is completed.

Interns who do work that directly benefits your company — such as Greg working with Southwest Exteriors’ installation crews — must be paid, and minimum wage and time-and-a-half for overtime laws also apply.

—Jim Cory is editor of REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR.