Why You Need Interns, and Why You Should Pay Them

03/04/2015 10:34 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

What do Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ursula Burns, Tony Adams and Andrea Jung have in common? All are successful CEOs. All are heads of profitable, respected companies. And believe it or not, they all got their start as interns. If a business is questioning whether or not interns add value, consider this: would you have passed up having talent (albeit burgeoning and developing) of this caliber? Whether or not the next Ursula Burns walks through the doors, interns can assist with important projects and bring resources, creativity and energy to the table.

I'm a big believer in the value of interns. I've gone to different graduate schools and looked through databases of student resumes, searching for people who could help me do market research, financial analysis and other projects. It's one of the smartest moves a business can make. Here's why:

  • They're good at it. That's the bottom line. I always talk about A players. Here, you want A students. These young people know how to do research. If they've made it to the graduate level, they're adept with computers, with finding and using different resources, with writing reports, with analysis.
  • Project-specific help. Interns don't have to -- and shouldn't have to -- hang around the office, filing and making coffee. The value, for them and for the company, is in their learning about the business or the industry. I reached out to interns for specific projects. For instance, "I need you to do a financial analysis on the annual report for a company I want to do some work with. I need it by Friday of next week and will pay you200, if you're interested." They're able to get some great real-world experience, and I get my report. Win-win.
  • Resources. Interns have the whole university at their disposal. They can access databases and information that I couldn't without a subscription, and they can hit up a professor for help if they need to. In that environment, they're used to learning, to digging, to finding answers and they have (or the university does) the resources to do so.

So, it's a great deal for the company. But what about the intern? Recently, internships, particularly unpaid, have received a great deal of scrutiny. Is it fair to them? Are they being worked too hard, and is the return not worth their investment? There has got to be something in it for the intern. Here are a few ways that I made sure internships were as valuable for the intern as for the company:

  • Titles. I typically don't call people "interns." I call them my "financial analysts" or my "market research assistants." This allows them to put something more concrete and professional on their resumes.
  • Potential job after graduation. If an intern excels in his or her role, and a position opens up, she may be the first person the company goes to. She knows the business, she knows the people, she's proven she's a solid player. Millennials, especially, are finding it difficult to secure good employment opportunities. Having your foot in the door is a good way to overcome that challenge.
  • Pay. I am a big believer that if I ask someone to do work for me, I pay them. Now -- I may not pay them a lot, but compensation is important.

Another Word on Pay

Intern pay is becoming a sticky legal issue. In 2012, unpaid interns who worked on the movie Black Swan sued Fox Searchlight Pictures for violating minimum wage laws. A New York Federal Court judge ruled in their favor. In 2014 an intern for Alexander McQueen filed suit for the same reason, and there are sure to be more. While not all unpaid internships are illegal, companies need to be cautious -- and ethical. This is someone who is working for them. Why not pay them?

A caveat to that: I was a professor and taught a number of foreign students who were required to do an internship. To meet the terms of their agreement in coming to the US, those internships had to be unpaid. And sometimes, students want or need experience in a particular field and are willing to sacrifice pay. Say a student wants to work with a venture capitalist or a commercial contractor, for instance, but firms are not hiring. He may decide that the experience is worth more than a paycheck -- and the firm is unlikely to turn down this free help. If this is his choice, more power to him. It's his decision. If a company, however, approaches people and asks them to work unpaid, they're taking advantage of them. It's that simple.

Qualified interns are a tremendous asset to companies. They are not free or cheap labor: they are contributors who bring a wealth of knowledge, skills and enthusiasm into the office.

Mike Harden has developed exceptional depth and breadth of knowledge over his 40+ year career as an entrepreneur, executive, teacher, mentor and coach. Today, as one of DC's premier Executive Coaches, Mike helps good executives become great leaders. Contact Mike for an executive coaching session.