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Hiring Interns: A Guide on How to Recruit and Select Interns

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 01/26/2023


hr managers interviewing an intern for their small business internship program

Table of Contents

Establishing a small business internship program can offer many potential benefits. Often college students or recent graduates can bring fresh perspectives, while training interns offers a unique management opportunity for current employees. But bringing on an intern for your business, like any other process, requires careful consideration. Let's take a look at not only how to find interns and potentially add to your future talent pool, but also identify potential internship requirements and best practices to be mindful of before starting such a program.

Determine Timeline, Budget, and Team Needs

A business may initially consider bringing on interns for a specific upcoming project or initiative. In such cases, it's a good idea to outline the project's scope and requirements, identify necessary tasks, and which skills are required. For example, a summer-long technical project may warrant bringing on interns who are computer-savvy and demonstrate strong attention to detail.

Another consideration is your budget, if any, for bringing on interns. Some internships should be paid while others may be unpaid, such as students receiving college credit in lieu of monetary compensation. There are many state and/or federal wage and hour rules to consider if you decide to bring interns into your organization. At the federal level, there are multiple factors that determine whether interns in the for-profit sector may be paid or unpaid by focusing on the primary beneficiary of the relationship. These factors include:

  • Whether the internship provides training similar to what the intern would receive in an educational institution;
  • Whether the internship accommodates the intern's academic commitment(s) and calendar; and
  • The understanding of all parties concerning compensation, among other criteria.

When this analysis indicates that an intern would also be an employee, the intern is entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Additional state and local laws could provide additional clarification on internships.

In instances where interns are paid, these wages should be factored into your budget for an internship program. This will also require your interns to complete any necessary new-hire paperwork, such as Form I-9, Form W-4, and any other employment forms required before they begin work.

You may want to consult with an HR professional or legal counsel to ensure your internship programs and supporting agreements comply with federal, state, and local wage and hour laws.

Connect with Local Colleges

Once you've outlined business needs for bringing on additional help, where can you find interns? Colleges and educational institutions are great places to connect with students who are ready to get some hands-on work experience. Cultivate relationships with local colleges and universities by reaching out to the institutions' career development centers, advertising internship openings on their job boards, and attending job fairs.

Communicate Your Internship Opportunity to Students

Similar to recruiting an employee, reaching out to a potential intern requires communicating about opportunities via thorough descriptions. This is where you can outline responsibilities, the type of work they will take on, timeframes (e.g., May-September during a school's summer break), whether the internship is paid, and other pertinent information. Much like crafting a job description for an employee, make sure you can answer questions such as:

  • What are the goals of the internship and what specific duties and functions will the intern take on to achieve them?
  • Is there any previous skill set or current program of study the person needs to succeed in the role and add value?
  • Where will the person work, and during what hours?
  • Which team will the intern support?
  • What tools, software, or technology resources will the intern be provided with to achieve the goals of the internship?
  • Is there the opportunity to bring an intern on as an employee following the completion of their internship?

The more detailed your description, the better you can communicate your needs and find the right intern. Otherwise, unclear expectations can lead to interns bouncing back and forth between teams, sitting idly with nothing to do, and developing a less-than-favorable impression of your business.

Once you have a solid description for an internship opening, post the listing with local colleges, as well as on websites that post about internship opportunities, career pages, and social networks. Encourage current employees to also reach out to their alma maters to help spread the word.

Start the Intern Selection Process

A thorough vetting process, much like hiring a full-time employee, is crucial to selecting an intern. The intern selection process may involve initial phone screenings to weed out unqualified applicants, in-person interviews to assess their capabilities, and even a meet-and-greet with the team to get a sense of future dynamics. Anyone involved in the interviewing and selection process should be mindful of the fact that this person likely has limited (or zero) job experience, so questions should reflect this. They may include:

  • What do you hope to learn as an intern?
  • What made you interested in your current field of study?
  • What are your future career aspirations?
  • Can you talk about a recent school project you worked on?

Anyone involved in the interview process should also be mindful of questions to avoid, including anything related to an individual's race, ethnicity, religion, or gender; citizenship status or place of birth; any physical or mental disability; or whether the candidate is pregnant.

Make an Offer

Just as you would extend an offer letter to a potential employee, make an offer in writing to an intern, whether it's paid or unpaid. Details to consider including in the offer letter:

  • The name and location of the business
  • The internship's start and end dates
  • The amount of compensation you are offering if it's a paid internship (or alternatively clearly stating that the position is unpaid)
  • The intern supervisor's name
  • The deadline for accepting the internship

Internship FAQs

Do Interns Get Paid?

Many internships offer some form of compensation, but unpaid internships may exist in situations where the intern is the "primary beneficiary" of the agreement, per the DOL's primary beneficiary test. State and local laws should also be taken into consideration when determining whether an internship is paid or unpaid.

Do Interns Get Benefits?

While interns are generally not eligible for most company benefits, those who qualify as employees under the FLSA are typically eligible to participate in company benefit plans. As of May 2017, organizations with 50 or more employees are required to offer health benefits to any individual working 30 or more hours per week once they have satisfied a waiting period. The law doesn't specifically outline guidance in regard to interns, but if they work 30 or more hours per week and have satisfied the waiting period, interns must be offered coverage. Make sure to review your company policies prior to bringing on any interns.

What's the Difference Between Intern vs. Employee?

As stated above, there are federal and state guidelines that help organizations classify an intern vs. employee. But at the basis of an internship policy, an internship's purpose is to provide a student or recent graduate with training for a specific period of time similar to what would be given to them in an educational setting. The experience is for the benefit of the intern. On the other hand, an employee is hired to perform specific tasks for the benefit of their employer in exchange for compensation and benefits.

Do Internships Always Lead to Jobs?

Not necessarily. Internships are a great way for students to build connections within a company, demonstrate their abilities, and generally get their foot in the door. But there is no guarantee that an intern will receive a job offer.

Can a Company Revoke an Internship Offer?

An employer has the right to rescind an internship offer for almost any reason, unless it's based on discriminatory factors such as gender, race, etc. If the individual fails a background check or drug test, this could also lead to a revoked internship offer as part of the company hiring policy.

Can an Intern Get Fired?

It's possible for internships to end prematurely, but how businesses choose to handle subpar intern performance can vary. Some businesses will simply wait out the duration of the internship and wish the student well at the end of it. Others may choose to dismiss an intern before their last day. That said, internships are learning experiences, and it's important to provide opportunities for interns to learn from their mistakes. However, actions such as continually showing up late (or not at all), stealing or committing illegal acts, or exhibiting inappropriate behavior may all be grounds for immediate dismissal.

How Long is an Internship?

Internships last for a specific period of time, typically anywhere between a few months to half a year. An internship that lasts for a short duration, such as during a summer break, can be beneficial if there's a project that will have a definite end date. At the same time, a longer internship offers more time for training and additional opportunities to further develop an intern's skills.

Get the Most from Your Internship Program

An effective internship program can help students and recent graduates see what it's like to work at your company, explore different departments, and gain valuable work experience. And with today's competitive hiring landscape, interns can offer a helping hand to over-capacity departments, and be a great strategy for building a solid candidate pool for future job openings.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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