How to Hire a Great Intern

internAh the intern. They provide equal potential for both success and major disappointment. Hire an intern to get ahead in the office, impart sage wisdom, or utterly waste your time.

Hiring interns is a fantastic way to get your hands on young talent. In engineering particularly, the competition is so manic that tech giants will go for college freshmen to capture talent as soon as possible.

Depending on their field, hiring an intern can be a very cheap way to check some company duties of your list. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that their hourly pay is accompanied by a cost in time.

Training and teaching an intern can be a considerable burden, especially for smaller teams. And especially if your intern needs a lot of training.

Internships have the benefit of being a trial-period for employees without breaking the bank. 90% of them desire to work at the company they intern for after their trial ends.

Good and Bad Fit

There are some practical considerations when deciding if a potential intern is a good fit. You must start with a basic idea of what duties they will take on. Usually it’s good to start with assigning a non-priority task that nags you enough to divert your attention from the primary goal of the organization.

For instance, perhaps you need someone to file trademarks because it’s important for your next round of funding, but you won’t immediately sink if it’s not done right.

Or, you could have an engineering concept that you want to try without overburdening your existing development team. Try assigning it to an intern.

It’s usually best if both parties benefit from the internship. Interns should get training and knowledge to make them more valuable on the market, and you should get a head start on some lagging projects.

Your company must actually have the bandwidth to structure a plan for the intern to produce meaningful work, or you won’t get any.

Alternatively, you can screen for an intern capable of structuring themselves, but this person is sadly rare.

Try to ensure there’s enough work for the intern to do in the hours you employ them. If you’re lucky and they can create their own, you don’t have to worry too much. If that’s what you’re looking for, expect to say goodbye to a lot of interns before finding the self-starter.

An anecdote

Once there was this girl working for a company a few seats away from me at a co-working joint. She was diligent enough when her employers told her exactly what to write about, but she was hopeless on her own. If her boss didn’t tell her anything specific to write, she would sit at her desk the entire day chatting.

Once I overheard her arguing with her boss with the defense, “you haven’t told me what to work on next!” as if that made sitting and doing nothing ok.

She didn’t last long.

Some people can’t ideate on their own. They expect dictation on everything they do.

For a lot of engineering teams, the word “how” is absolutely forbidden.

A strong intern can self-supervise and produce.

What to Communicate

Whether you have the time or not to answer a myriad of intern questions, make it known early. If you don’t have the time resources to train completely, coach, mentor or even talk with the intern, let them know on the outset.

I worked an internship that had a rule where any question that can be Googled is off limits to ask. I ended up being pretty quiet since every question can technically be Googled if you Google hard enough. The team had extremely limited resources at the time, but the intensity of this rule wore off after working there for a year or so.

The Recruitment Process

Write a job description that resembles the typical responsibilities and expectations you’d expect on a regular job post. For an intern, you can afford to be nebulous about requirements, and encourage multiple disciplines. In a startup environment, it’s good to have someone that can pick up slack in many departments, so varied skills are a good thing.

Keep benefits like prestigious experience, graduated pay, or personal branding evident in your offering.

Where to Look

  1. Check in all of of the resources your department already has access to for recruiting. You never know which database will have hidden talent that will fit your niche needs. Don’t forget that most interns won’t have a huge digital footprint with professional information so you may need to go to the sites they gather in to for more personal interactions.
  2. Social sites, like Facebook, with groups of students interested in a particular career field, can be a great source. Use this search tool by Intelligence Software to search Facebook. Once you identify the talent, use a tool like PROPHET to get contact information.
  3. College Career Services are a good place. Many classes offer credit to students for taking on an internship. Some schools require it for the student to graduate. There is already a robust infrastructure for siphoning students into internships like yours. Reach out to any school’s career services for help here.
  4. Word of mouth is excellent too. One of our most recent interns was found through our network built through conferences. He turned out to be one of the most talented individuals we have come across.

Paid v. Unpaid

The going rate for bachelor-degree-holding interns is $16.21. Usually you can expect these types to deliver work with substance and see a direct impact on your company.

If you can’t afford to pay someone, know that the duties you assign to an unpaid person cannot be highly substantive by US law. Unpaid interns are prohibited from doing most of the bread-and-butter work that’s most valuable to you. Think coffee runner.

Conclusion

Internships can be a wonderful thing for both parties. They can also be an awkward disappointment.

Or, they can be an incredible success story like that of Nasdaq’s Adena Friedman who rose from intern all the way to CEO. My advice is to roll the dice.