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Invest In The Unpaid Intern And Everyone Gets A ROI

Invest In The Unpaid Intern And Everyone Gets A ROI

Inexperienced interns may not produce work worth paying for…yet. But your experience, time and guidance could get them there, that’s the whole point.

An internship should serve as a career roadmap. It should guide interns to succeed in a paid, entry-level position at your business or any other organization.

The role of the unpaid intern isn’t glamorous. They are often given busy work or remedial tasks that a company would never pay for. On the other side, when managers don’t invest time in those who they don’t invest money, they risk losing talent they wouldn't find otherwise.

[Related: I Thought You'd Be Older: Life As A Career-Driven Millennial]

I can speak first hand on this, from both points of view. Last year, in January 2014, I started as an unpaid intern at the public relations agency that currently employs me. I now run our internship program. From hiring, management, and exit reviews, I work to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship between agency and interns.

Eager, high-potential applicants can be hard to find when searching for unpaid interns, particularly if you do not operate near a large population of students who may need to complete internships for credit. At the end of an internship, students often hope to be hired by that business (I clearly did), and rightfully so.

How do you attract interns with strong potential and work ethics?

 I strive to offer the interns that I oversee these three things:

• Real, applicable work experience: The research they conduct, the relationships they build and the content they create are all essential to our clients’ campaigns.  Interns want to know their contributions are acknowledged, appreciated and acted on.

• Make clear that interns' feedback is sought after: At my firm, even on first interviews interns are introduced to, and engage with, the agency’s principal(s) and account execs. From the very start, they are encouraged to ask every question and share every idea.

• Dedicate time to one-on-one training and education: I look for interns that can work independently and with confidence, but confidence must be curated through explanations, constructive training, reinforcement and two-way communication.

Training Interns Pays Off In The Long Run -- For Everyone

Training and then challenging those whose only goal is to learn isn’t difficult, especially when they hope to secure a paid position at the end of the internship.

If I am following through on offering applicable work experience, then I’m asking interns to complete tasks that can range anywhere from intuitive to incomprehensible.

As an intern, being abandoned and to accomplish something you never have before can be overwhelming and ultimately a negative experience. It will likely result in sub-par, often unusable, work. It’s managements fault, however, for tasking an individual who’s never tread water to essentially swim upriver.

[Related: After the Break: The Benefits of Career Reentry Internship Programs]

Don’t just spend time on the “how,” but also the “why” behind what you are asking your interns to do. Knowing the motive and final objective of a task brings it out of the weeds and provides a much higher level of understanding, which produces better results for the entire team.

The more time you spend teaching and working with each other, the less time either you or your intern will waste.

I remember the first time I was asked to write a few tweets to be published by a brand when I was an an intern. I had only about 22 followers at the time and had sent only maybe 40 tweets over the three years I’d had my handle.  

I had no idea how to craft a tweet that had a purpose. Instead of leaving me to flail in the wind, team members showed me how to do it right.

If I’d spent my internship making copies, transcribing webinars and running out for coffee, instead of diving headfirst into real PR and social media work, I wouldn’t be followed by top reporters and analyst in my clients’ markets, or have developed the passion for digital engagement strategy. That’s great for me, sure, but even better for the agency that helped me create it.

By using the time I was unpaid, untrained but inspired to teach me the skills they pay employees for, my learning curve cost the company $0.00 and my supervisors were able to mold an account team member the way they wanted. The first day they paid me as a full-time employee, I was already familiar with their clients, the agency’s organization and an established social media persona.

The Legalities Of Unpaid Internships

If you can’t offer your interns money, offer them everything else possible. If you have no empathy for interns and have no intention to further their professional skills, I can’t stop you. The Feds, however, can and will. It’s federally mandated that any unpaid internship provide educational value to the student that outweighs any advantage the business reaps.

Six Legal Requirements for Legal Unpaid Internships:

• The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.

• The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

•The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

• The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

• The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

• The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

For more information on the legalities of unpaid internships turn to Forbes here.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.