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Five Ways to Get the Most Out of Interns

Young interns are a  great resource!
Small companies, still skittish about hiring new employees, increasingly are turning to interns to pick up the slack. But be careful! Despite the relatively dismal job market, recent college grads will come to every internship -- paid or unpaid -- with the "expectation of experience and opportunity," says Cari Sommer, co-founder of Manhattan-based Urban Interns, a website that connects small companies with interns and part-timers. Follow these five tips to make internships a great experience for all concerned:
  1. Teach interns about your company. Young workers want to know how they fit into the big picture, so step back and give them some historical perspective and explain what you're trying to achieve. "You can't just bring them in and expect them to do a task without context," Sommer says. With that context, the scut work that's part of most internships becomes more tolerable.
  2. Match interns with mentors. "After they're hired, each intern is interviewed about their interests so we can understand what they want to get out of the experience," says Darren Paul, co-founder of Night Agency, a New York-based interactive advertising agency that hires 30 or so interns every year. "Then we pair them with a mentor so they can learn specific skill sets." And consider that mentors may also learn a thing or two from interns, especially when it comes to new technology and social networking.
  3. Keep interns accountable. Because they have so little work experience, too much freedom can be daunting and counter-productive. "You have to set up a check-in mechanism to track progress," Sommer says. "Structure is important." Break long-term projects into smaller bits, and offer guidance and encouragement along the way.
  4. Establish rules for communication.Do you want your intern asking questions as they come up, or do you prefer scheduling a time to talk? Is it best to reach you by text, phone, or email? Make sure your interns know how and when to reach out, and who the appropriate point of contact is for each issue that may arise.
  5. Reward good performance with new opportunities. "If they're doing a great job, hold up your end of the bargain" and offer them an opportunity to work on higher visibility and more exciting projects, Sommer suggests. If you give an intern a chance to shine, you may just find your next valuable employee. "We give our interns access and responsibilities, and in return we get great insights and ideas," says Paul, adding that six interns have become full-time staffers.

Do you hire interns at your company? Share your intern-management tips -- or your cautionary tales!

Intern image by Flickr user Jayeb333, CC 2.0