Starting an internship program from scratch may seem like more trouble than it's worth. But the reality is, even small businesses with limited time and resources can reap the rewards of hiring great interns. In fact, for resource-strapped startups, cheap and eager talent can provide a big boost -- while providing opportunity for those interns to cut their teeth in a real-world environment.
"Any business that hires college graduates will benefit from having college interns," says Matthew Zinman, founder of The Internship Institute, a nonprofit in Newtown, Pa., which has helped hundreds of businesses with their internship programs. "Many college students are high motivated, highly capable and -- if well utilized -- highly valuable."
So what makes for a successful and rewarding internship program? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Determine the scope of the internship -- ahead of time.
Set goals for your internship program before you begin the recruitment process. How long will the internship last? Will it be paid or unpaid? What projects are appropriate for your interns? For example, Zinman says research, writing, planning, phone, and computer work are great skills interns can bring to your organization. But whatever you do, he adds, "plan projects well in advance, even prior to recruiting. Then stay on top of keeping that work pipeline flowing."
2. Hire someone exceptional.
Interns lack professional experience, but that doesn't mean you can't find valuable candidates from local universities or through word of mouth. When it comes to the interview process, look for someone responsible and enthusiastic. "Their level of interview preparation is a key indicator," Zinman says. "Did they do their homework to demonstrate a genuine interest in the opportunity? They should be well-organized, self-motivated and -- ideally -- possess good written and interpersonal skills."
3. Make the experience a valuable one.
It may seem obvious, but the more you put into the program, the more you'll get back. And when you create a rewarding and positive mentoring experience, you'll attract top candidates and get great work in return. But it takes a genuine commitment on your part. "Assume ownership of the program and pursue continuous improvement," Zinman says.
4. Set aside time to manage your interns.
Even though you're busy, you can't afford to let your interns run wild. Provide regular feedback, oversee their performance and show that you appreciate their contributions. Interns understand they're here to learn, and many want to, so offer feedback -- just make sure it's constructive and positive. "This is all about trading their time to manage and mentor instead of trying to do everything themselves," Zinman says. "The productivity gains can be quite substantial. Once the student is up to speed, it may take between three to six hours per week to manage them effectively." If you're too busy to manage the intern directly, appoint a supervisor who can.
5. In case you still have any doubts...
According to a recent five-year study conducted by The Internship Institute, interns who are managed well "add significant productivity to the bottom line -- up to 200-plus days per year" depending on the number of students, Zinman says. "Beyond that, having interns can level the playing field with larger companies that compete for recruiting top college talent. It's also important to acknowledge their fresh enthusiasm and creativity. That positive energy is contagious and tends to boost employee morale." An internship program will also save your business recruitment costs by allowing you to evaluate potential employees before hiring them full time.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 3/1/11.