Hiring an intern is a great way to tap into talented students who haven’t yet graduated from college. You can find interns by contacting your college career center or searching on job boards like Indeed. You can even hire unpaid interns as long as you meet FLSA guidelines when setting up your internship program.
To find and keep track of interns in your hiring pipeline, consider using Indeed. Indeed allows you to list your internship opportunities with a free job post. It also lets you search for internship candidates looking for summer and part-time experiences. First time users get $50 in free sponsorship credit.
Use these five steps showing how to hire an intern:
1. List the Skills an Intern Can Provide
Forget the traditional job description. When you’re hiring an intern, you won’t have six to 12 months to train them for the dozen or so responsibilities of a typical job. Instead, you want to hire for a particular set of skills. Interns typically work on projects that require those skills and can be time-boxed in such a way that a student can complete their assignment over the summer, or by working a few hours per week during the school semester.
Skills vs Job Description
Whereas a traditional job description may focus on a myriad of job duties, an internship is typically focused on a much smaller skills-based subset. In fact, most interns are brought into companies to shore up existing jobs done by full-time employees (if it’s an unpaid internship, it can’t take the place of a paid job). It’s not uncommon for interns to do research-related tasks that are project-based, resulting in a deliverable such as a report. In that case, a skills-based internship job description is best.
Here’s what a university internship expert tells us:
“Sometimes you can get help with these internship job descriptions from the school’s Career Center. Make sure there is a clear line of accountability. The internship is primarily a learning experience for the student. Both the employer and the student should know who they would go to for expertise and instruction in the area they are focusing on.”
– David Lindstrom M.A., CPRW, Director Student Development Services, Walla Walla University
Below are examples of skills that interns can provide based on their academic major:
- Statistical research: Students studying international business, economics, or biomedical topics can often assist with data analytics and trend analysis.
- Writing and blogging: Language majors can help provide marketing and educational content to help you build your company brand and service offerings;
- Engineering: Students studying engineering or architecture may be able to help you set up and launch your 3D printer or redesign your warehouse or retail store layout.
- Graphic design: Art and design students often need to build out their portfolio while in school. They can upgrade your existing website and marketing collateral with images.
- Website development: Marketing students learning to work with website development tools may be able to help you jump start or optimize your retail ecommerce site.
Project vs Position
Whereas a job position at your company assumes a permanent part- or full-time employee, an internship is generally more project-based. It’s not unlike hiring a contract worker—you decide upfront what you want the intern to do, as well as how learning or developing that expertise will help them build career skills.
Here are types of projects that make sense for interns; these vary by major:
- Develop a mobile app: An information technology student could join your mobile app development team for the summer and contribute to user interface (UI) design and testing.
- Build an onboarding program: An HR or instructional design student could be tasked with creating a new hire onboarding program for new hire orientation and training.
- Create a safety scorecard: A student might be tasked with interviewing managers to come up with an easy-to-use safety scorecard to reduce workplace accidents.
- Record a webinar: College students studying media might be tasked with creating a webinar to educate your clients on your business service offerings.
- Streamline business processes: A business student could be tasked with documenting your processes in order to expose potential time savers or software tools.
Flexible Schedule vs Full-time Work
Another consideration with interns is that they’re rarely full-time workers. However, some schools offer co-op programs that alternate school and work to allow students to obtain real-life experience while they’re still in school. In general, you’ll need to consider the kind of work hours you’re looking for, as well as the amount of supervision and training you’re able to provide during those internship hours.
These are some common examples of internship schedules:
- Part-time school-year internship: Interns are often available for work schedules ranging from five to 20 hours per week during the school year.
- Part-time summer internship: Some interns prefer to take on assignments during the summer, such as 20 hours per week during the months of June and July.
- Full-time semester internship: There may be times when your intern wants to take a break from their study schedule and embed themselves full-time in their chosen field.
In general, unpaid internships need to align closely to the academic calendar, whereas paid internships provide you more scheduling flexibility. Other options, like bringing a foreign graduate student over for a year-long internship, are also possibilities. In those cases, you’ll be responsible not only to provide a living wage to the intern but also to manage housing, transportation, and other costs, such as healthcare.
2. Determine Your Budget for Hiring an Intern
Small business owners unfamiliar with managing internships may find that it’s not always cheaper to hire an intern—especially if you have to pay that student a minimum wage or more. Unpaid internships are also an option for nonprofits and firms that comply with Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) internship guidelines described in the How an Internship Works section below.
How to Hire an Intern for a Paid Internship
Offering to pay interns provides you with multiple benefits. For starters, you’ll have more interest from qualified students in taking on your internship role. In addition, you’ll rarely fun afoul of the law as long as you abide by minimum wage requirements in your location.
Here’s what to pay and when to pay your interns:
Typical Pay Range for an Internship
The typical pay range for an internship is above minimum wage in most states. Interns typically earn between $7.25 and $30 per hour according to Indeed. Industries that have a high demand for certain skills (think internet security or blockchain) may choose to pay more for interns who can work in those areas. Payment can be made on any state-allowed pay cycle, such as weekly or every other week. In addition, some internships are paid via stipend—that is, via lump sum payment once the internship is completed.
“I know some internships in finance pay $30 per hour. Local and regional firms are already starting to feel the pinch from their labor costs. It would be easy for me to say at least minimum wage, but with bigger national or multinational companies, it gets a lot more competitive. So it is very state and industry dependent. Local schools should have an idea of what their students are earning.”
Timing of Payment for an Internship Stipend
Like a paid project you’d negotiate with a contractor, internship stipends may be paid at the end of the project, semester, or college course. Let’s say the student is enrolled in a master’s degree program on information technology security and you’ve hired them as a summer intern to build a software program to monitor incoming website and email traffic for spam. You may offer them $2,500 as a stipend to be paid once the software program is running in a beta test mode.
How to Hire an Intern for an Unpaid Internship
Because an internship often fulfills an academic requirement wherein the student earns college credit, there are some internships that require no payment. However, these tend to be internships of fixed duration or schedule, such as 10 hours per week for four months, rather than internships that require a longer time commitment. In fact, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) clarifies what’s required when hiring an intern for an unpaid role.
In addition, many top universities, like Claremont McKenna in Southern California, and Northwestern University, offer grant funds to help offset the expenses students may have while participating in an unpaid internship. In all cases, the university will require that the student receive significant academic benefits by participating in an unpaid internship.
The rules for unpaid internships are less strict if your business is a not-for-profit firm such as a local food bank that typically hires volunteers. Nonetheless, HR experts like Justworks advise consulting an attorney before finalizing your unpaid internship program to ensure that your business doesn’t accidentally violate the FLSA Internship Guidelines, which may result in fines and damage to your brand reputation.
3. Identify Academic Institutions That Train Those Skills
Once you’ve decided on the skills you need from an intern, you’ll begin looking for academic institutions that are in the business of training students on those skill sets. If you’re looking for a biomed research intern, for example, you’d likely search universities with medical programs.
The same is true if you’re looking for a summer intern for your law firm—you’d search for schools that offer legal training. In all cases, it’s best to contact the college career center or look for information on internships available on the college website. Another option is to contact the faculty adviser for the department within the school, such as economics or engineering. They may know of talented students, provide insight on internship programs available, and can also advise you on how to set up the internship to benefit both your business and the student.
Here are the types of academic institutions that can help you find interns to hire:
Many universities have structured internship programs that provide students with college credit for their internship experience. Others manage paid internship programs for students, and a few offer funds to support their learners participating in unpaid internships. U.S. News recently updated its list of universities with the best internship programs if you’re looking for the top universities that formalize their internship programs.
Your local community college may have an internship program too. But even if they don’t, it’s a great place to find a student intern. You can contact the career center or visit the school and chat with a faculty member who teaches the kind of courses you’d like your intern to have taken, such as Accounting 101 or Electrical Engineering. Further, most local colleges have a place you can post your internship opportunity—even if it’s just a note card pinned to an old-fashioned bulletin board in a cafeteria, computer lab, or student center.
Larger schools like Georgia Institute of Technology let engineering and business students take turns working and attending classes in order to earn a degree over five years through their co-op program. Local trade schools in your area may have similar programs to help match you with an intern in fields ranging from animal husbandry to welding.
4. Advertise Your Internship Role
In addition to contacting relevant academic institutions, you can also find students and recent college graduates searching for internships on job boards like Indeed. In fact, there are niche job boards that target student job placements, and many universities have their own job boards managed through the career center. If you have a solid social network following, you can also let students know by posting information about your internship on sites like LinkedIn, as Gallup does.
Here are a few common places to advertise for hiring interns:
Campus Job Board or Career Development Department
Educational institutions, like the University of Arizona, provide free employer resources on how to set up internships with their students. Once you’ve identified the skills needed, you can post a job on those boards, often at no cost. What’s most important is to match the work you need to be done to the school most likely to provide students with that kind of education. Do you need a graphic design intern? Or a business analytics intern? Chances are, they’ll attend different schools.
Lindstrom, from Walla Walla University, adds:
“Right now, the best way to find an intern is by far calling us directly. We have an online application to come on campus to do a tabling event or information session. We can also set up interviews and advertise to certain majors.”
Employment Job Sites
Free and paid job posting sites like Indeed allow you to post your internship opportunities and track interns who apply by using their applicant tracking tools. This helps you avoid discrimination issues by being able to monitor your intern outreach. There are several top-rated job boards on which you can post your internship.
Internship Job Board
In addition to Indeed, Internships.com is an example of a job board that specifically targets employers looking for interns and students looking for career experiences. Both paid and unpaid internship seekers can be found on this website. However, you have to sign up to post jobs or view student resumes. Another alternative is to post your internship opportunity on a free job board.
One of the benefits of using a job board like Indeed to search for talent is that you can use Boolean search criteria to find interns available in your area, from a specific school, or possessing unique skills. Posting a job is free, and Indeed provides first-time job posters with $50 in free sponsorship credit. You can use that now or save it for future job openings you want to advertise. Visit Indeed and get $50 in free sponsorship credit.
5. How to Hire an Intern You’ve Chosen
Unlike your other employees, interns, whether paid by 1099 or W-2, are always temporary employees. It’s not uncommon for interns to be recommended by a faculty adviser, or for there to be only one or two interns available for the exact skills you seek. In that case, you may opt not to go through a full interview process and instead skip ahead to set up your internship based on what the educational institution requires, such as an internship agreement.
Internship (Contract) Agreement
Your internship agreement is a kind of employment contract tailored to the specific intern’s work project and duration. At a minimum, it should list the project or outcomes desired, such as a project deliverable (report, testing guide, training course, or data spreadsheet). It should also list clearly whether the internship is unpaid or paid, as well as how much the stipend or pay rate will be.
Also, different from a standard work agreement, it’s best to document the expected start and end dates of the internship (aligned to the academic calendar) along with a statement that there’s no promise or guarantee of employment once the internship is over. Obtaining signatures from all parties can help ensure everyone is in agreement on the terms.
Educational Institution Requirements
It’s entirely possible that the academic institution you’re working with provides a sample internship agreement or internship contract to start with. It’s worth asking about, especially if you’re agreeing to provide an FLSA-compliant unpaid internship. Fill out the university’s form as well as indicate how much credit the university will provide for the internship and any requirements they have of you (such as providing an intern evaluation form or meeting with the student’s adviser).
“Our initial agreements are pretty general. Where they get specific is about the students ‘Learning Objectives.’ Our medical placements take a ‘hold harmless agreement’ depending on the organization. No matter how vague or specific, employers should make sure that the proper parties are also signing off on the document (for instance, the employer, academic adviser, academic records, and career center).”
Paying Your Intern
If it’s your first time hiring an intern, you may not be sure how best to pay them. If you already have paid employees, you can simply add the intern as a temporary employee to your payroll system. We recommend easy-to-use software like Gusto, as it tracks workers earnings, manages payroll taxes, and provides W-2 tax forms.
Another option, if you’re paying a lump-sum stipend, is to process the payment in your accounting software. For example, with QuickBooks, you can provide the stipend payment similar to an independent contractor, as well as send the intern a 1099-MISC at year-end.
How an Internship Works
Typically an internship begins with an agreement between a student and the employer. This agreement may be facilitated through a university and or aligned with the student’s academic program.
In some cases, students are able to earn college credit for the work they do with your firm. In many cases, the school will require you to give the intern valuable work experiences that further their educational experience. Some even require you to complete a final report or evaluation on the student’s work.
Samantha Drake at Entrepreneur magazine reminds us that:
“An internship is first and foremost a training program—not just low-cost help.”
Managing an intern takes time. That’s because it’s a partnership between the intern and your business, which provides the student with career and industry experience. The student, in turn, offers a fresh perspective and insight. The purpose of an internship is two-fold, not one-sided. It’s not free labor, and, in fact, it requires you to become a teacher, mentor, and guide.
“Don’t be afraid to really evaluate the student while they are there. For the employer’s sake, so they know what kind of employee the intern might make, but also, what kind of talents and gifts fit the company culture the best. And for the student’s sake, to make it a quality learning experience.”
FLSA Internship Guidelines
For an internship to be unpaid and meet the strict requirements of the FLSA, it must comply with the following guidelines, paraphrased to make them easy to follow. The full requirements are available on the Department of Labor (DOL) website.
Here’s how best to steer clear of FLSA violations when setting up an unpaid internship:
- Make clear to the intern that the internship and any work they do is unpaid.
- Don’t promise the intern a job, or imply that the internship may lead to a paid job.
- Provide hands-on training and experiences to enhance what the student learns in school.
- Ensure that course credit is provided or that the work closely aligns to the intern’s major.
- Allow the student flexibility to attend courses; accommodate their academic schedule.
- Tie the internship start and end dates to the academic quarter, semester, or break.
- Ensure the internship benefits the intern significantly from an academic point of view.
- Don’t hire interns to do the work of, or to replace, paid employees.
Academic Credit for Internships
Many colleges and universities require students to complete internships. For example, Endicott requires its students to complete three internships within four years, and George Washington University manages thousands of internships throughout the Washington D.C., area. Typically, at larger schools, such as Arizona State University, it’s on the student to request college credit for their internship by contacting their academic department.
You’ll often find that intern programs that offer college credit come with strings attached. Namely, you may be required to provide progress reports or complete an end-of-internship evaluation so that the college can determine what grade to give the student. In addition, the student is likely to have to pay tuition to earn that credit. These are all considerations for you and the intern to weigh when deciding whether college credit is worth pursuing.
Managing the Intern Relationship
One of the challenges small businesses face is deciding who should manage the intern. That’s because college interns may lack business work experience. That means they require hands-on supervision and may ask a lot of questions.
Intern Managed by Department Supervisor
In many businesses, interns are managed by the supervisor with responsibility for the work they do. That can be an issue for a few reasons. First of all, some supervisors don’t have the academic background that the intern brings and may feel threatened by the intern’s updated technical and research knowledge.
The other reason is more practical—managing an intern is time-consuming. Further, some supervisors have no interest in the developmental aspects of helping an intern discern their future career options—which is one of the goals that need to be shared by both the business and the intern.
Intern Managed by HR
Often, what works better than having an intern managed by a department supervisor is to have the intern report to you. It’s best that the intern report to someone (you or your designee) with HR and training responsibilities that can assist with their work-related questions, such as what’s appropriate to wear to work and how they are to get compensated.
The intern may then work within a given department or with a specific team or manager, but not report directly to (or be subject to discipline by) a supervisor who may lack experience working with, training, and supporting interns.
Pros & Cons of Hiring an Intern
The benefit of hiring an intern is that it can help you get project work done on the cheap. In addition, it may help you identify talent that you can bring into your company once the student graduates from college. However, the best of all reasons is that it improves your employment brand as you “give back” to your community by training future workers and leaders.
Pros of Hiring Interns
Here are the top three benefits of hiring an intern:
- Improve your employment brand: Giving back to the community, investing in local talent, and shoring up your existing workforce with eager fresh faces.
- Create a talent pipeline: Finding potential future employees who may want to work for you, or can recommend smart talent within their social network to apply for jobs.
- Bring in fresh perspectives: Getting the benefits of new technology, new approaches, and research-based insights. Many interns are in close contact with educational advisers who can also weigh in on work-related challenges and solutions during the internship.
Cons of Hiring Interns
Below are a few reasons not to embark on a program hiring interns:
- Takes time: Managing interns requires onboarding and training. While it makes sense to do this for full-time employees, it might not make sense for a two-month internship.
- Must comply with FLSA: Those wishing to structure unpaid internships must be sure not to violate the FLSA or they risk having to provide back pay and labor law fines.
- Can create resentment: By design, interns must be provided flexible schedules so they can attend classes. Your current workers may not appreciate what appears to them as special treatment of the intern.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About How to Hire an Intern
Those venturing into their first internship hire may have questions. Below are answers to the most common questions about hiring interns.
Is an intern considered an employee or an independent contractor?
Whether your intern is considered an employee or a contract worker is determined entirely by how you set up the internship to start with. If you have a paid intern who you promise to pay five hours per week, it’s best to set them up as a temporary employee and pay them weekly, with a W-2 provided at year-end.
Conversely, if you hire an intern to complete a project for you over a three-week holiday break and you pay them a lump sum stipend, there’s no need to set them up as an employee. You can process that payment similar to any other contract worker. If you have questions, it’s best to chat with your payroll provider or accountant.
Is it legal to not pay an intern?
If you’re a nonprofit, you can offer the intern a volunteer role, unpaid. However, for-profit businesses are subject to federal rules that determine whether you must pay the intern or not. In addition, several states provide specific laws as to when you can substitute school credit for volunteer hours provided by an intern. It’s best to check with your local labor law attorney before finalizing the terms of your unpaid internship program.
Do interns have to be paid minimum wage?
Unless you meet the FLSA guidelines for an unpaid internship, interns, like any worker, must be paid at least minimum wage—even if they receive only a stipend. However, some states, like Michigan and Minnesota, allow employers to pay a lower “training wage.” That applies to students and interns as well, but the specifics vary by state. For example, in Michigan, the student must be 19 years old or younger. Your best bet is to talk with a labor law attorney familiar with minimum wage requirements in your city and state.
What kind of paperwork do I need to hire an intern?
It’s a good idea to prepare a signed employment contract or internship agreement to ensure you and the intern are clear on the expectations and duration of the internship. In addition, if you pay the intern hourly like an employee, you’ll need to gather I-9, W-4, and other new hire forms similar to when you hire an employee.
What legal concerns come into play when hiring an intern?
When you bring an intern onto your team, you need to abide by federal labor laws as well as state workforce requirements. This includes avoiding discrimination, preventing sexual harassment, complying with tax laws (if the intern is paid), complying with the FLSA, and providing health insurance benefits depending on how large your organization is and how many hours per week the intern works.
For example, if you hire an intern to work 30 hours per week for the entire academic school year, you will need to offer them the same benefits and perks as your other 30-hour week employees.
Do interns have to be covered by workers’ comp?
Yes, HRIS software provider Justworks reminds us that your workers’ comp coverage applies to your interns as well—paid or unpaid. Most states (except Texas) mandate workers’ compensation coverage to protect workers who are injured on the job. To learn more about workers’ compensation and how to buy it, read our article on workers’ compensation.
What’s a good alternative to hiring an intern?
If you’re looking to find a quick hire who can manage a project or task for you and don’t have time to provide training yourself, a better option may be to find an experienced freelancer on a website like Fiverr. Freelancers offer services on Fiverr starting as low as $5. Many are recent college grads and millennials looking to leverage their skills to pick up a little extra cash.
The best way to hire an intern is to determine in advance how much time you’re willing to spend providing rich learning experiences and what kind of skills a student might bring to your organization in the short time they’re available. After that, it’s all about finding the best fit and documenting an internship agreement.
If you lack the time to develop a working relationship with a local university or their career development office, consider posting your internship opportunity on a proven job board like Indeed. You’ll be able to search for just the right college student or recent grad looking to develop their work skills. And best of all, posting a job on Indeed is free.