How to make the most of a business internship

Small Business Guides

8 min read

An internship can be great for your business – and for your intern. But you need to plan carefully and have the right attitude. We spoke to the League of Extraordinary Women, a movement of female entrepreneurs, to find out how to make the most of internships.

What is a business internship?

An internship is a form of work experience, usually for graduate students. Internships allow graduate students to work in a real business environment. There they can learn useful, practical skills to help them kick-start their careers.

Interns are usually paid a low salary, and sometimes nothing at all. This has led to some people believing that internships are a form of cheap labour.

Chiquita Searle, GM for the League of Extraordinary Women, says that misses the point entirely. The internships run by the League show that when managed properly, the intern and the company benefit. And those benefits go far beyond the value of the work itself.

Internships have become more popular in recent years. That's because the graduate recruitment market has become more competitive. In this guide we'll look at how an internship could benefit your business, and how to get the best out of your interns.

What's in it for the intern?

The idea of working in a business for little financial reward might not sound appealing. But an intern actually stands to gain a lot from the experience.

  • Introduction to business culture
    Universities can't always prepare young people for the realities of the business world. A business internship is a great way to learn the ropes.
  • Networking opportunities
    As the old saying goes, "It's not what you know: it's who you know". That might not be fair, but to an extent it's still true today. Internships allow graduates to meet and mingle with people who might help them in their careers.
  • Possible employment
    An intern who performs well and fits into a company's culture might be offered a job there. It's a good fast-track to employment.
  • Work experience
    It can be hard to get a job without experience, and hard to get experience without a job. Internships bridge that gap, giving students genuine work experience which will help them find employment later.
  • Confidence and support
    With the right mentor, an intern can discover abilities and skills that they didn't know they had. They will be encouraged to develop as an employee and as a person. And they'll hopefully gain a glowing reference when they leave.
  • Self discovery
    Graduate students don't always know what type of career they want, or where they'd like to work. Internships can give them a taste of different types of business. This will help them fine-tune their career path. It will also teach them what they're good at, and where there's scope for self improvement.
  • Differentiation
    In a crowded and competitive employment environment, every advantage helps. Say an employer has to choose between two graduates. If one of them has completed a successful business internship, the odds will be in their favour.

What's in it for you? 10 reasons to offer a business internship

Most businesses exist to make money. But it's great if you can do something socially responsible at the same time. Internships can give you the best of both worlds – along with some surprising additional benefits.

  1. Motivated employees
    Interns are often highly motivated. Many of them have seen the realities of the employment market. They are driven to find their own fast-track to gainful employment. Their enthusiasm and drive can be infectious, having a positive effect on your staff.
  2. Fresh perspectives
    ‘Group-think’ is what happens when lots of people believe the same thing – without considering alternative perspectives. It can happen in any business, as people adapt to each other over time. But interns can bring a fresh perspective to your business. This could take you in new and profitable directions.
  3. Emotional fulfilment
    The conventional view is that emotion has no place in the workplace. But humans are emotional creatures. We need inner fulfilment from our daily lives. Mentoring a keen, smart intern could fulfil an emotional need that you didn't even know you had.
  4. Tech savvy
    Today's graduate students have grown up with technology. So if your business uses technology in any way, they will quickly get up to speed.
  5. Intelligence
    Interns are bright. Studies have shown that, on average, each generation gains about 10 percentage points on the previous one. That makes interns some of the smartest people on the planet.
  6. Try before you buy
    You are under no obligation to hire an intern once their business internship ends. But you can certainly offer them a job if you want to. This means internships can be a great way to recruit fresh young talent into your business.
  7. Stronger community ties
    Interns are often recruited from the local university or other educational establishment. Companies that hire interns in this way can forge strong links. And this can give them access to the best graduate students, year after year. This is another reason for treating interns well. A good reputation for looking after interns will reward you in the long term.
  8. Social payback
    No business can exist in a vacuum. Small businesses in particular are closely affected by their local environment. If you help to improve the prospects of young people in your area, you improve the environment your business operates in.
  9. Demographic equality
    Workforces are getting older in many countries. Young people are often excluded as companies take a more conservative approach to employment. Hiring young interns helps redress the balance.
  10. Cost effectiveness
    This is the last point in the list because it shouldn't be the driving factor. But there's no denying the benefit of getting work done for a relatively low cost. This should be the icing on the cake, though – never your main motivation for hiring an intern.
Internships can be a great way to recruit fresh young talent into your business.

Find an intern who suits your business

Finding the right intern is like hiring the right employee, as discussed in our guide 'How to hire the right employees'. For the best results you need to make an effort – decide what type of person you're looking for, and then find them.

It's a good idea to get some help here. Your local university should be able to offer advice, and a chamber of commerce or business advisor will give you tips too. Some of the things to consider include:

  • The culture of your business and the type of person who would suit it.
  • Areas in which you might be looking to recruit, such as sales or development.
  • Who will be in charge of the intern – who will be their mentor?
  • Whether to hire an intern full-time or part-time.
  • How much to pay the intern.
  • Whether to advertise using internship websites or go directly to universities.

Simplifying the selection process

You may find yourself overwhelmed by the response to your request for intern applications. There are lots of keen young people out there who are eager for useful work experience.

It makes sense to streamline the process. Try holding group interviews to start with, perhaps with a team-building activity. Follow up with one-to-one interviews. Here you can discuss their attitudes and aspirations, ability to integrate into a team, and their culture fit. Look for keenness, preparation, research into what your business is about and overall personality.

Use your judgement to choose an intern who will fit well with your organisation. But don't be afraid of the unconventional. As we mentioned earlier, sometimes a fresh perspective can breathe new life into your business.

Start with the right attitude

What you get out of a business internship arrangement depends on what you put into it. So start with a positive attitude if you want to get the best results. Focus on the following points.

  • Structure
    This is one of the most important things to get right. Don't leave your new intern wondering what they should be doing all day. Provide structure for their time with you. Write this down clearly as an Intern Agreement – and sign it. Try to give your intern varied experience in all aspects of your business.
  • Insight
    Interns are bright but inexperienced. The best gift you can give them is insight into the way the business world operates. Help them understand what they need to do to succeed. In return they'll try to match your expectations.
  • Active management
    Sometimes things don't go according to plan. Be ready to step in if you notice any issues, because fast action can stop things deteriorating. Don't be afraid to ask questions to get things back on track. Why are you running late? Why are you missing deadlines? How can we help you? Sometimes it just doesn't work out and you might have to let your intern go. But make sure you've done everything possible to help them before you make that call.
  • Commitment
    Theirs is important, but so is yours. Taking on an intern is a commitment on both sides. Make sure you both understand this, and pledge to fulfil each other's requirements. The more you both put in, the more you'll both get out.

A well-planned business internship is a win for everyone

With the right approach, your business stands to gain a lot from running an internship scheme. Be prepared to put in the time and effort required to get the best results. Understand what your intern needs from you – and give it to them. You could find yourself working with clever, driven young people who have new perspectives and positive attitudes.

But regardless of the business benefits to hiring an intern – and there are many – you will gain in other ways too. You'll have the opportunity to mentor someone, which can be very rewarding. And you'll be able to pay forward the skills and experience you've gained from your own career.

The next generation will only be successful if they are supported and encouraged on their journey. This means business owners can help by passing on their knowledge. You can provide a supportive environment for today's young people – and encourage them rise to the peak of their own aspirations.