Student Intern Programs

Student Intern Programs

Dear Janet,

I work for a small business and would like to start up an internship program for college students. Please give me some advice on how to pursue this project. I would like to make this program attractive and beneficial for both the company and the intern.

–RD, Washington, DC


Dear RD,

Student internship programs can be a good way for employers to locate motivated, short-term help and possibly save a little on salary costs. More importantly in today’s full-employment economy, such programs can help businesses scout out talented candidates for future full-time employment. The programs are good for students, too, since they gain real-world work experience, on-the-job training, and income as well as the class credits for participating in the program.

But as you suggest, making it all work does take some planning. For small companies these days, it sometimes takes a lot of luck, too. Here’s how things usually work:

The educational institution establishes the internship program and sets up the ground rules such as the minimum number of hours students must work during the semester, the type of work that qualifies for the program, the minimum salary or stipend employers will have to pay an intern, and the nature of any reports the employer will need to provide so the student gets class credit for their work.

The employer needs to clearly define the tasks the student will be expected to do, the skills or college courses the student will need to perform those tasks, and the time (and specific people) the company will allocate to training and supervising the intern. A key factor for very small companies is to have realistic expectations about the amount and level of work an intern can do and the amount of training that may be required. Programs also have to be structured so they allow students to get enough hours in within the semester or class year. 

You can find out about intern programs in your area -and make your interest in working with interns known by calling the colleges and universities in your area. Ask to speak to the career services department or whoever is in charge of the internship program. But if your company is very small, there are many big corporations in your area, and the universities or colleges you call are well-known, don’t be surprised if your initial inquiries don’t get much response. 

With the labor shortage in many industries, more businesses than ever are trying to tap into the student intern pool. As a result, competition for interns can be as fierce as competition for full-time employees – particularly in hi-tech fields. Given a choice, universities and colleges usually prefer to place interns with big corporations instead of small companies. 

In fact, in many parts of the country, businesses are reaching down into the high schools for intern -type programs and other school-to-work programs. That’s because major corporations are more likely to offer interns full-time employment at very competitive salaries after graduation. Furthermore, an internship at a major corporation is more prestigious (both for the intern and the university) than one at a small company. 

If you run into this kind of obstacle, don’t give up. Try calling smaller colleges and community colleges, and trade schools in your area. You can also put help-wanted notices out through the university career placement center, college and local newspapers. If your company’s underlying motive is to locate motivated part-time employees or to scout out potential full-time help, consider hiring retirees, displaced workers or parents who want to work-from-home.

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