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Know how to benefit most from having interns

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Call it on-the-job training, an apprenticeship, an internship or practicum.

Whatever terminology you choose, consider the prospect of working with college students a win-win situation. The student gets valuable work experience and the business, nonprofit or government agency gets the opportunity to capitalize on new skills from emerging leaders in a variety of fields.

While any organization can employ college interns (for stipends or college credits), the organization with a successful internship program will be one that identifies students who fit into the company's core values and mission and who devote time and energy into training.

Consider the following important factors in developing a successful intern/employer relationship:

1. Plan ahead. A busy intern is a happy intern. Think through what projects need to be done and what intern skills you can utilize. Interns are capable of far more than the stereotypical fetching coffee and making copies — use them to the full extent of their abilities and they will be far more responsive and productive.

Test them with small jobs first to ascertain where their skills can best be applied. Résumés don't always provide all the answers, and part of a successful internship program will allow interns to learn a variety of aspects of the job.

2. Interns are expecting to learn from their experience, and you are a teacher as much as a manager. Don't expect that you can just assign a task and have it returned without question or without error. Interns who have successful experiences cite "mentorship" as one of the main reasons. Be prepared to explain tasks — not only how to do things but perhaps why things are done in relation to your industry or the business world in general.

3. Generally, interns aren't self-starters. By virtue of being students, they are used to being given assignments and held to deadlines, constantly reminded along the way about what is due and when. Be specific about your expectations — provide detailed instructions and remind them of important deadlines. Remember, this may be the first actual "real-world" professional experience some young people have had.

4. Try to provide a diverse work list for them so they can find out what their passion is and where their strongest skills are. Be prepared to offer constructive criticism along the way. Be responsive to the university and/or the faculty member responsible for the direction of the internship. Complete necessary paperwork in a timely fashion, and if there are issues, confront them right away.

An intern is graded on the work they do for you (including showing up on time, dressing appropriately and understanding professional etiquette). If there are red flags, let the school know right away. Do not allow an intern to wander aimlessly through their program and then surprise them with a failing grade. That type of negative reinforcement will not allow them to change their behavior.

5. Above all else, remember that an internship is an opportunity for both you and the student. Like any relationship, it will be successful only with appropriate time and attention. Be understanding of interns' needs, answer their questions and provide guidance. Include them in meetings (even if you instruct them not to speak), take them to events and allow them to really see how the business operates.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, under the Fair Labor Standard Act, unpaid internships must meet all of the following six criteria.

1. The training interns get must be similar to what would be given in an educational or vocational academic setting.

2. The internship should be focused on the benefits to the trainee.

3. Interns cannot replace workers who are usually paid.

4. The employer receives no immediate advantage from the trainees' activities, and the employer's operations may actually be impeded on occasion.

5. At the end of the training, the trainees do not necessarily get hired.

6. Both the company and the intern must understand that work is being done without pay.

Whether your internship program lasts six weeks or an entire semester, make it a positive experience for you, your employees and your intern. Their experiences will help build your brand at their college and in the community, so don't waste the opportunity to benefit.

Linda Burkley, APR, is a public relations professional and an adjunct professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove. Her positive internship experiences and mentors helped her find her professional passion.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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