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Internship season is upon us, and as small-medium sized businesses, there are plenty of great things that new students can learn from our size of business and in nearly any industry. Building a winning internship program that is both effective for the student and for the business is a balancing act.

Internships aren’t just about grunt work anymore. With the right program, you can develop young talent and lay a foundation for recruiting brilliant young minds to work for your company. Smaller companies especially have an opportunity to edge out larger competitors by providing interns with opportunities to develop and staying in touch after graduation. By developing and working with interns, you can foster growth in an inexperienced individual who could one day become a major player for your company.

The first step is establishing the right kind of program and paying your interns to ensure you’re attracting talent that can contribute to your organization. Here’s how to do it.

1. Establish an intern program coordinator.

Having a person in charge of your interns is crucial to building a program that pushes candidates and ensures they’re getting the most out of their experience. The best part is, for small businesses, this position doesn’t need to be a separate full-time position. Wessel said that WayUp’s internship program is run by two coordinators who work in full-time roles for the company. She said these individuals contribute about five hours a week to the program, and the responsibilities don’t impede their full-time obligations

2. Give each intern a mentor or “buddy.”

Providing a mentor means giving interns an avenue for personalized feedback on matters that extend beyond their work. You want to provide a dynamic feedback experience for the intern, so assigning them mentors from upper-level management may not be the best idea, since they’ll likely already be receiving feedback from their direct supervisor.

3. Set goals and workloads.

Setting goals for your interns and revisiting their progress throughout their tenure is another important step in development. Wessel said that often, interns will work on two or three major projects, depending on the length of their internship. The key is tracking their progress and making sure there’s a defined beginning, middle, and end to their work.

4. Make intern development a daily commitment.

As your interns get into the swing of things, make sure you have some structure set up so they are constantly receiving feedback and are on track with your goals. This is an important step in providing a personalized experience, but it’s also crucial for you as a business owner – with the right feedback, you’ll get the right kind of work from your intern.

5. Stay in touch.

Once your internship comes to a close, try to maintain at least a tenuous connection with your former interns. There’s no telling what opportunities they could move on to and what doors they could open for you in the future. Staying in touch with interns acts as proactive networking – by keeping in contact, you provide the opportunity to reconnect in the future.

Of course, another great reason to keep in contact with good interns is if you want to offer them a full-time role once they graduate. A good internship program acts as a training ground for young talent. You can filter out interns who aren’t a good fit for your company and discover new talent that could one day serve your company on a full-time basis.

Structuring your internship program

These tips and best practices are a starting point. How you set up your internship program will be specific to your business and reflective of your organization’s values. It’s important to foster strong communication between your intern and multiple sources, like mentors, managers, and other interns, and create a collective experience where an intern can feel like their work contributed to your overall organization. By developing bright young minds and fostering talent in your interns, your company can retain great people and be the starting point of illustrious, successful careers.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) offers a six-part test to see if your intern can go unpaid:

  1. The internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The full experience is purely for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern doesn’t replace regular employees but still works closely with existing staff.
  4. The employer receives no immediate advantage from the work the intern does; in fact, operations may be impeded.
  5. There is no job guaranteed at the end of the internship.
  6. Both the intern and employer know there are no expectations for wages