This is a guest post by Heather R. Huhman, author of Lies, Damned Lies & Internships.

Dear startup founders:

Your unpaid internship practices are giving internships a bad name, and we’d like you to stop. Startups can definitely gain from hiring interns, but it’s important to give them a quality experience — and compensate them for it.

Interns can truly benefit startups

Hiring interns for your startup is not just a way to get cheap labor. They can actually bring a lot of value to your team. Interns are still learning the ins and outs of their professions, so they’re willing to pick up new skills and apply them to your company. They may not have all the experience of a seasoned professional, but they’re willing to learn quickly.

Interns are also eager to succeed, so they’ll offer unique perspectives and take on new projects. Interns want to build their resumes and portfolios. They want to accomplish something they can boast about in the future. Things are constantly changing at a startup, so many interns are excited for the fast pace and opportunities for innovation.

Too many startups are failing their interns

While it’s definitely a good idea to consider hiring interns at your startup, you need to go about it the right way. Many startups that hire interns end up overworking and underpaying them. These startups are giving internships a bad name.

Interns are not simply worker bees you can hire for free. They are there to learn. Even at a startup, you need to provide interns with training and mentorship. If the work they accomplish provides value (monetary or otherwise) to your company, you need to pay them for it.

For example, this community engagement internship at TerraCycle requires a minimum of 20 hours of unpaid work per week. Interns are responsible for developing a project plan, building awareness, coordinating collections, and analyzing results. The company tries to compensate for the lack of pay with perks like food and parties, but in reality, 20 hours or more is quite a large time commitment to work without pay.

Interns need goals and support

Additionally, despite the unestablished nature of a startup company, you still need to come up with goals for your interns.

One startup intern blogged about her experience, citing a lack of focus as one of the main problems with her experience. When she first talked to her boss, “His enthusiasm for working together was infectious.” After a week though, she said, “I had to rein him in. I had to keep him focused. I had to bother him to help me.”

Interns need to be mentored. It’s not their responsibility to constantly remind you of their role. When you hire interns, you should expect to be teaching them. Yes, they can help you with new ideas and projects, but you shouldn’t expect them to be completely independent. They’re still learning. If you need worker bees, label the position a summer job — because that’s really what it is.

Determine a list of tasks you expect your interns to accomplish over the course of their internship. These goals should be outlined clearly for the intern, so they know what to expect before accepting the role. Of course, these goals will change as your company changes, but it is important to remain clear about your expectations.

Please don’t be the startup who ruins the name of internships. Mentor your interns and compensate them when they work hard. The rest of us will greatly appreciate it.


Those of us looking to improve the internship experience

Heather R. Huhman is the author of Lies, Damned Lies & Internships. You can connect with Heather on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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