Hiring Interns for Small Businesses

As college is back in session, it is time for students to start looking for work to boost both their experience and education. Small businesses have the unique opportunity to create an entrepreneurial space where students can be exposed to a wide variety of tasks and responsibilities while learning alongside employees.

Doing it Legally

Hiring unpaid interns can be a legal grey area unless you do it correctly. Interns cannot do the work of entry level employees.They must have an educational component to the role in the company. The US Fair Labor Standards Act requires that interns are not of a financial benefit to the company. If the employer is the primary beneficiary the intern must be paid at least a minimum wage. Both student and employer must recognize the importance of tying the program to a formal education program, and if necessary the student will receive course credit per his or her college program. Unpaid internships must also have a set start and end date that corresponds with the relevant educational component.

Paid internships are slightly different. Students must be fairly compensated for the work they are doing. For example, if you are hiring an intern to help with data entry or another technology-based task you need to make sure their pay is adequate. The average intern in the US is making $16.46/hour based on reports from The University of Scranton. Interns should be paid on the same schedule as employees.

Are Interns Employees?

Yes and no. A recent poll conducted by UpCounsel found that most employers are classifying interns as part-time employees. This puts the intern on the same pay schedule as the regular employees, but it doesn’t require the extension of benefits in most states. Any correspondence between the employer and intern should be done in the same manner as part time employees. This includes confirming they have read the employee handbook.

If you are working with an unpaid intern you should still make sure the terms of their internship are clear. Have a legal document drawn up that confirms both parties recognize they will not be paid for their work.

What Can an Intern Do?

It is very important to make sure you are hiring interns that meet the needs and industry expectations of your business. The experience should be educational for the intern as well as meet a need of your company. One of the most popular ways to use interns is in support roles involving technology and innovation. Given their knowledge of emerging technology and experience in the social space, interns are often leaders in how to build successful programs around technology, whether development, social media, presentations, programming, or other practices.

Interns can also do office tasks: filing, answering emails, and more. However, you are more likely to attract high quality interns if they can experience the process of building or selling your product or service. Interns want practical experience that translates to skills and resume building activities. More importantly, giving them access to these roles is great for your business. Interns are often more likely to want to experiment with different processes, software, and systems.

What’s Next?

Draw up a list of things you are willing to let interns do with supervision. Having a clear task list makes it less likely that you will blur the lines between paid employees and interns. Make sure it includes items you trust someone who isn’t a regular employee to do. You can start small and add more or different responsibilities as times goes on. Learning how to utilize interns in a way that benefits both them and you is an important step in building long lasting relationships with colleges in your area.


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