If you're considering hiring an intern to work for you over the summer, there are a few key points to consider before making that decision.
The common mythology about interns is that they are a magical solution to help you reduce your workload without stretching your staffing budget.
But if interns were really that great, who would need employees?
I'm being a bit cheeky when I say it that way, but it does get right to the heart of the myth-busting I hope to do in this post.
Interns are not employees, and therefore the reality of hiring of an intern means one of two things:
#1 Your intern is really there to learn from you, in which case you're going to be doing as much or more teaching as they are going to be performing work. In other words, don't expect that having an intern is going to lighten your workload – in fact, it might even increase it.
#2 Your intern is a whizz at the role they were hired for, and really takes a load off your shoulders with minimal prep work or explanations on your part... In other words, they are fulfilling the role of an employee, and you are misclassifying their role as an internship.
In a bygone era, it was a common experience for college graduates to hire on with a company right after school and to continue working there for many years, possibly even spending decades at a single company. Offering internships to students in their final years of schooling was a way for both companies and employees to 'test the waters' and make sure the company, role, and potential employee were all a good fit before making a long term commitment.
Although there are some companies who practice hiring an intern with the same level of integrity and seriousness originally given to the role, unfortunately, it has become all too common for companies to use internships as an opportunity to gain free or low cost labor, which – if we're not mincing words, here – is a form of exploitation.
Before hiring an intern, ask yourself –
Am I hiring someone to shadow me and learn to do the same job I am an expert at? Or am I hiring someone to take tasks off my plate that I don't want to do, don't know how to do, or just don't have time to do myself?
If you answered yes to the first question, you're truly hiring an intern. If you answered yes to the second question, let's be honest – what you need is an employee.
If you feel you want to hedge on that point a bit because your budget is just too tight and your workload is over the top – consider that solving your business problem in this way is not just exploitative to your intern, it's also failing to address the root cause of your business woes.
As a leader in your company, it's literally your job to make sure that you're finding the right balance between workload and profit. If you're overworked and your budget is still too tight, an intern is not going to solve the fundamental problem that you're probably undercharging for your work and/or overdelivering. In this case, you don't need to find an intern, you need to find a way to bring your business back into balance.
Using interns to triage your broken business model is only going to cause you more personal suffering in the long term. It's also preventing you from participating in a market reset, creating a more realistic sense of how much value can be delivered at what price across your entire industry.
It's unfair to the intern who isn't being properly compensated for their work, and it's unfair to their less financially privileged peers who may be self-supporting and unable to work for little or no monetary compensation – you'll be helping to reinforce systemic bias against them as they enter the job market with weaker resumes than your unpaid intern, even after having worked as much or more than their financially privileged peers.
In short, hiring an unpaid intern may have looked like a great idea on the surface, but look a little deeper and you'll see that unless you genuinely desire to offer an educational experience with no expectation of receiving work product in return, it's a lose-lose-lose situation for yourself, for your intern, for your professional peers and for society overall.
If you REALLY want to be an all-star, hire an intern and pay them the same wage as a starting salary for an employee in a similar role – that way, you'll be helping to level the playing field between professionals who may be entering the job market with equal talent and promise, but varying degrees of financial privilege.