(Photo: lisafx / iStockphoto)

(Photo: lisafx / iStockphoto)

The number of internship opportunities seems to be constantly rising: just in the area of social media, it seems like every company has an opportunity for a student with a good working knowledge of Facebook and other social networking sites. However, hiring an intern requires a lot more than simply putting an ad up. If you want to make sure that you can hire the right intern for your business, there are some factors you need to consider.

The Cost of an Internship

Some business owners seem to believe that interns are free labor, which simply isn’t true. An internship, by definition is an opportunity for someone unskilled to learn about the realities of working in a particular industry day in and day out. Some internships are paid, while others offer school credit — if neither are available, it is much harder to hire an intern. A very few well-known companies can offer internships without pay or credit and still get interns who will work hard and have at least studied the industry, but if your company isn’t a household name, it’s unlikely that you will fall into this category.

For many businesses, offering at least a token payment is simpler than suggesting an internship be used for college credit. For an internship to count on a student’s transcript, it needs to accredited and most schools still require payment for the credit hours that the internship accounts for. Depending on the school and the length of the internship, the cost of those credit hours can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand — rarely an amount that a student can easily cover.

Most internships are for a limited length of time, a fact which can make managing an intern on your payroll a little more complicated. The U.S. Department Labor considers anyone listed as an intern to be an employee and subject to payroll taxes — even if they would otherwise be considered a sub-contractor. Whether or not your intern actually works in your office or on your schedule, he or she must be given a W2.

Finding an Intern

There are plenty of college students, recent graduates and people in the middle of a career change who are interested in an internship with your company, but making sure you get the right intern can be harder than you might expect. If you simply list an internship like any other job, you’ll get a stack of resumes. The quality of those resumes depend greatly on the opportunity you’re offering: if it’s clear that you’re providing a learning experience and aren’t trying to get free work out of an intern, you can wind up with a long list of excellent candidates. On the other hand, businesses offering internships that may as well be unpaid jobs still sometimes get applicants, but those applicants tend to be of a significantly lower quality.

Since you are likely only considering bringing in an intern for a limited period of time, it may not be practical to simply get a big applicant pool and start sorting through them. An alternative is approaching the relevant department at a local college or university: professors are typically happy to recommend students for an internship, and often know which ones need a pay check or college credit. There are also numerous organizations dedicated to helping students find internships. Professional organizations often connect students with internships as do specialized recruiters.

Managing an Intern

The typical intern will not have extensive experience in your industry — in fact, while many may have extensive classwork, some will not have any work experience in your area at all. An internship is an opportunity to learn about how to work in a particular career: most interns will require a significant amount of training in order to be able to handle any work. While some companies have designed their internship programs to try to get interns working as fast as possible, you may find that you spend more time teaching an intern how to handle a task than it would take you to simply do it.

Especially if you’re offering an internship with college credit, it is crucial to regularly give an intern feedback on his or her performance. Some colleges may require you to complete routine evaluations, but even if you have no such obligation, feedback makes it much easier for an intern to learn from the experience of being in your office.

If you’re considering a long-term internship program — recruiting new interns on a regular basis — it’s worthwhile to create a standardized approach to the situation. You can set continuing criteria for hiring a new intern, create a standing set of tasks and instructions and even focus on extending an intern’s opportunities to learn about your business and your industry.