How to Create an Internship Program for Your Small Business

How to Create an Internship Program for Your Small Business


Summer is quickly approaching. If you own a restaurant or retail shop, you’ll see a line of tourists out the door in no time. Maybe you own an HVAC business; brace yourself for the heat wave that’s sure to bring in a slew of customer calls. Perhaps your industry’s peak season is in a different time of year. Whenever it occurs, you may face a sudden labor shortage. If hiring independent contractors or seasonal employees is your go-to solution, first consider hiring interns. The small business benefits of an internship program include filling a temporary worker shortage and opening a pipeline to future long-term employees who already know how your business operates. To maximize these benefits, there are four key factors to consider when hiring interns for your small business.

1. Determine Your Workplace Needs

If you’re eager for helping hands, you may be tempted to hire interns right away and figure out their tasks later. But you’re more likely to find the right candidates if you define the interns’ responsibilities before you begin the hiring process.

Your priority might be to increase the number of customer-facing employees like waitstaff or sales clerks, or you might have a greater need to fill back-office roles like tech support or kitchen management. Think about the qualifications required to meet your business needs, and write a candidate description to guide you when hiring interns for your small business.

Construction worker trains new talent, one of the benefits of an internship program

2. Build Out a Hiring Plan

Once you determine what kind of interns you want to hire, you need to start recruiting. Connecting with local colleges, universities and trade schools can be a good way to source internship candidates. The schools’ career centers may have online job listings where you can advertise your internship.

The most effective hiring plans take a long-range outlook. Aim to cultivate continuing relationships that draw qualified interns to your business. For instance, you could participate regularly in career fairs sponsored by educational institutions or trade associations. You could also volunteer to work with school clubs related to your industry.

Implementing your hiring plan will require a financial investment, but you may discover that the benefits of an internship program are well worth the cost and effort.

3. Add Structure to Your Internship Program

If you want your interns to do meaningful work that contributes to your business’s success, you need to provide a work environment where they can thrive. The structure and management of your internship program makes a difference. Consider creating a formal orientation process for interns, holding planning meetings with the employees who will supervise them, and taking other steps to ensure interns have a productive work experience.

With an eye toward building a pipeline for future employees, you may want to encourage employees to mentor the interns they manage, and you may even want to become a mentor yourself.

If you decide to start a program for training interns, a business loan can help with the cost.

4. Comply With Payment and Legal Regulations

Should you pay your interns? Technically, if the interns do not qualify as employees under U.S. Department of Labor rules, they’re not entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act; you could legally opt to not pay them. But as the National Federation of Independent Business noted, paid internships are likely to draw more valuable candidates to your business.

There are stiff penalties for classifying employees as interns and failing to withhold and pay the appropriate FICA taxes. Most states have their own laws for employee classification and wages as well. Ensure your business stays compliant by familiarizing yourself with both federal and state regulations.

With a plan that incorporates these four factors, the benefits of an internship program work two ways. The interns gain experience and make connections that help them start building their careers. Your business gains additional labor at a relatively low cost, the ability to evaluate potential long-term employees firsthand, and the opportunity to build a workforce that’s tailored to your company’s needs.