NEW YORK – Fresh face or long face? Which one you see on interns at small businesses may depend on whether the boss gives them a chance to shine or do only menial tasks.
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As business owners prepare to take on interns for the summer or the next academic year, many may not realize these young people aren't just stand-ins for regular staffers. Owners can quickly learn that interns need mentoring in addition to training, ongoing feedback as well as supervision and perhaps a few life lessons. They may also need to be paid.
"Interns are hoping to take the knowledge and skills they learned in their coursework and see it come to life," says Sarah Curry, internship coordinator at Marquette University's Klingler College of Arts and Sciences.
For many, that means work that's an integral part of a company's operations, or projects designed to help them learn more about the business and its industry. Owners sensitive to interns' hunger to learn will make sure they have a worthwhile experience.
"We want to give interns meaningful activities," says Casey DeSain, digital marketing coordinator at GMR Transcription, whose services include transcribing and translating. That means interns at the Tustin, California-based company get opportunities to learn about digital marketing, and tasks that "can vary from simple blog editing to more complex ones like analyzing marketing campaigns to ensure they're working well," DeSain said.
Interns may be high school or college students who earn credits for the work they do. Many others get internships independent of their school work, looking for experience in a field they're interested in, and hoping, if not for a position after graduation, then for a recommendation to help in a future job search.
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It's not known how many students get internships while in college, but it's safe to say the number is in the millions. The federal National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 17.5 million people enrolled in undergraduate programs this academic year.
Many companies are motivated to hire interns for altruistic reasons, wanting to give young people experience and a taste of what working in their industry is like. Owners are also often on the lookout for the next generation of talented staffers.
Even companies with nontraditional operations — for example, those that are virtual, with employees working online — can create internships.
Cristina Hermida's companies, Green Hopping and Inside Crowd, which are involved in public relations and have an app that promotes wellness, hire interns throughout the school year. Most of the students aren't in Miami or New York, where the businesses have offices. Interns complete their work and communicate with staffers online, and also have "check in" phone calls. The plus for the companies is they're able to get talented interns anywhere in the world, Hermida says.
The lack of "face time" hasn't been a problem, Hermida says. "We take a hands-on approach, walking them through the process (of what they're working on) as many times as necessary until they are confident to do it on their own."
Businesses with budget constraints may look upon interns as a resource that won't cost as much as an employee. In such cases, interns can find themselves doing drudge work other staffers won't do. But treating a student like a warm body to fill an empty slot or pick up the slack during vacations is a mistake, Curry says. The biggest disappointment Marquette students have in their internships is when they're assigned to do filing or move boxes all day, she says.
An owner can help ensure an intern will have a good experience by talking with them at the get-go, says Amity Fox, who directs the internship program at Dickinson College.
"Sit down together and talk about expectations — the student's goals, the employer's goals, ways to make it beneficial for all parties," Fox says. The most successful internships are those where students have a mentor to offer advice and make sure interns aren't overwhelmed. "Sometimes they're afraid to ask questions," Fox says.
Companies can find that when some interns don't like a task, it can take longer to be completed, and sometimes, it's not done at all. And interns might have meaningful work, but still balk because they don't like it. That can call for another life lesson.
"If you explain to them why what they're doing is important, then they see the value in whatever small part they're contributing, and just want to do it, but do it well," says Jill Tipograph, co-founder of Early Stage Careers, a New York-based company that gives career counseling to college students and graduates and helps them find internships.
That's the approach many owners find they need to take with interns, some of whom have never had a work experience before. Owners can also find they need to discuss matters like how to dress and how to act at work. Punctuality and too much time spent texting or on social media can also be issues.
Owners have varying opinions about paying interns. The federal government has its view on the matter, too. If interns are doing the work employees normally do but aren't being paid, that can be considered a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
When Bokos Footwear Co. first hired interns, they weren't paid.
"Without pay, the interns lose incentive. Since then, we have shifted over to exclusively offering paid positions," owner Matt McManus says. The Minneapolis-based company gives interns assignments in social media, advertising, sales and filling orders.
Public relations firm 919 Marketing gives interns a stipend toward some of their expenses.
"I have always found that students are engaged when they're able to earn college credit for what they're doing," says Scott Curkin, who oversees the interns at the Holly Springs, North Carolina-based company. Interns at 919 Marketing rotate through teams, getting experience in areas like social media marketing and writing press releases.
Fox noted that many students need part-time work to help pay tuition and living expenses, and she suggests it's better for interns to be paid. Paying interns also makes sense because a company does benefit from their presence, Curry says.
"Interns often are providing valuable work and input, and new perspectives companies wouldn't have without the students being there," she says.
Follow Joyce Rosenberg at www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg. Her work can be found here: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joyce-m-rosenberg