Why I love paying for interns (and other reasons to hire them)

Why I love paying for interns (and other reasons to hire them)
30 October 2017

As CEO of a company, you should constantly look for new ideas how to:

  • Get work done at the lowest possible price.
  • Inject energy and innovation into your company.
  • Build a team of loyal, long-term staff members.

Obviously, there are countless ways to achieve these goals.

One possibility that is under-appreciated, laden with misconceptions, and even caught up in a huge political debate (in the UK), is the hiring of interns.

Having just had an incredibly positive experience with the hiring of an intern, I wanted to share some ideas and insights that others find useful for managing their companies and projects.

What are interns anyway?

Unlike in the case of apprenticeships, there is no standardisation for internships, which leaves the term open to broad interpretation.

In short, interns are:

  • Training for white collar or professional careers.
  • Relatively young (high school students, college or university students, or post-graduate adults).
  • Looking for temporary assignments, ranging from 4 weeks to 6 months; though some with the possibility to grow into a permanent role.

In between these basic factors, there is a whole range of differing internship set-ups. E.g., there are now even virtual internships, where the intern works remotely using digital tools such as Skype and Slack.

I wrote this article to give anyone who is in charge of staffing decisions some real-world insights into our own experience with hiring an intern.

One differentiating factor in all this is the question whether an internship is paid or unpaid.

I wrote this article to give anyone who is in charge of staffing decisions some real-world insights into our own experience with hiring an intern.

How did I get started hiring an intern, and why did it leave me with enthusiasm for doing it again?

A fortuitous dinnertime conversation

Earlier this year, I ended up sitting next to one of the co-founders of the Inspiring Interns agency in London.

The agency was set up in 2009 with just £3k in funding. In the ensuing nine years, it has generated revenue of £10m purely on the back of growing organically; no further outside capital was required for growing the agency!

Evidently, Inspiring Interns has been doing something right.

Their model is simple but effective:

  • Out of the huge number of available interns in the UK, they source the best and brightest using interviews and tests.
  • The selected internship candidates have to record a brief video where they describe their background, talent, and aspirations.
  • The database of videos and CVs is shared with corporate clients that are looking for interns but don’t have the resources to manage a broad effort to find candidates of their own.

Hearing about the agency from one of its founders, I subsequently told some of my colleagues at Master Investor Ltd., the company I have been restructuring and growing over the past two years, about Inspiring Interns.

Where interns come in handy

I doubt there is a single company or organisation that doesn’t regularly face the following conundrum:

  • There is a list of tasks that require getting done and which often have been sitting around forever; but for which no staff member has the time and hiring a dedicated staff member is not viable.
  • These tasks don’t require someone with decades of experience, but they do require someone with some background in the subject and hunger to get things done professionally.
  • All too often, such tasks then end up either not getting done ever, or someone knows a friend or a cousin who isn’t a good fit for the tasks at hand but happens to be available and is then temporarily brought onboard.

My colleagues and I at Master Investor Ltd. faced just that situation, primarily relating to our database management, finding and signing up of new corporate clients, and promoting our products to a corporate audience.

Enter Inspiring Interns, who help us find a four-month intern who got the job done. There are, of course, multiple agencies for these kind of hirings. Companies can also run their own recruitment process and offer positions via their website. We decided to outsource the search for a suitable candidate because as a small company we didn’t have the inhouse resources to do it ourselves, and we chose Inspiring Interns because we had met them personally, and had mutual business contacts which provided further reassurance.

Signing up with Inspiring Interns required us to:

  • Fill out a one-page questionnaire about our company.
  • File a summary of what we were looking to get help with; which we provided in the shape of a two-page job description.

Our client advisor suggested a list of candidates to us, which we whittled down to four shortlist candidates.

Seeing the 90-second videos of all the candidates helped a lot. As did the two-layer pre-selection process, i.e., Inspiring Interns only letting strong candidates onto its books in the first place and an experienced client advisor then picking out the most suitable candidates for our requirements.

A personal interview with our lead candidate later, we ended up hiring her for an initial two months and an understanding that this period might be extended. Our chosen candidate was fresh out of university; based in the right part of London to enable us to meet when required; willing to work mostly remotely; and with both some initial background in marketing as well as a visibly strong interest in the area.

Ground-rules for managing interns

All staff members require guidance, training and oversight, and young staff members require that all the more.

There is a huge debate raging in the UK, whether it should be legal to hire interns without paying them.

I hazard a guess that any well-managed, sane company will have only one answer to the entire subject. Pay your interns, because if you don’t, it means you are not taking the internship seriously. Something that is “for free” will not get valued and will inevitably go to waste. Companies have it in their own best interest to pay interns. Otherwise they won’t maximise what they get out of the intern.

Pay your interns, because if you don’t, it means you are not taking the internship seriously.

Because we invested some of our company’s cash into paying our intern, we were all the more conscientious that this entire process had to lead to concrete, worthwhile results. The necessary steps we undertook for this seem basic and common sense, but are all too often ignored when it comes to hiring interns:

  • Conduct a personal interview before hiring them. Be open about your requirements and ask them also to be open about their expectations and worries.
  • Plan their tasks (for us this was the job description we filed with Inspiring Interns), give them “real” work to do – not just invented tasks to make the day go by. Always set a deadline as well. This is a really key part. Everyone will have seen how companies where the intern becomes an annoyance and no-one has any work for them to do and they just get passed round the company.
  • Appoint a supervisor, to provide both supervision and support.
  • Plan the logistics, e.g., do you want the intern to be in your office or work remotely.
  • Regularly review the work done so far; an opportunity to hand out some well-deserved praise and to take corrective measures if necessary.
  • Regularly ask the intern if he/she has additional ideas for contributing to the company. Younger people often have very different insights, e.g., which latest web-tools to use, or what trends to latch on. Make use of having a different viewpoint available to you.
  • Make them a full part of the team, i.e., invite them to sit in on meetings and provide some of the training opportunities you would for permanent staff. E.g., we sent our intern to a Press Association social media course and the Direct Marketing Association’s GDPR training.

It’s not difficult. With a bit of common sense applied in managing the intern, everyone ends up happy. After the initial two months, our company agreed with our intern to hire her for another two months.

Here is what we got for our investment

Unless you are a start-up without revenue or a charity, it’s not that difficult to earn back the money you are paying an intern.

We decided to pay our intern £10.50 per hour, i.e., a nudge above the London living wage of £9.75 per hour. The agency required a one-off recruiting fee of 10% of the monthly salary, and a £550 per month fee for each month of the internship (which would have been £300 per month had we opted for a six-month internship).

All in all, our four-month internship cost our company about £9,500. Out of that, we generated over 1,000 potential new clients researched, qualified and uploaded with all relevant data about them added to our database to use in highly targeted marketing campaigns. Had we paid an external agency to do this work, we would have paid a multiple AND it would have never been done with the care and attention that someone under our supervision did it with. Along the way, we had her handle a variety of other tasks, ranging from designing a series of infographics designed to promote our event to business clients, to supporting the creation of content marketing blog articles.

For us, there was no question about whether or not to pay, and we achieved a good return on our investment.

We also reaped the following (soft) benefits:

  • We didn’t end up falling into the trap of having higher-paid staff do this work. Often, you end up saving £1 by not hiring someone but instead spend £3 having someone else do the work. This may be an obvious error, but it can so easily get hidden in the P&L, which is why companies often do it. Don’t fall for false economy!
  • We gained time because the work got done sooner than if someone else of our team had attempted to squeeze it in. Time is also cash.
  • The entire team got to see that our company is looking for the right ways to get work done and grow the business, which adds to the cohesion of the team and staff loyalty.

Charities, start-ups and other organisations with special circumstances should be able to hire interns without paying them. For us, there was no question about whether or not to pay, and we achieved a good return on our investment.

I also loved writing a cheque to Inspiring Interns. They get a staggering 1,000 intern applications per day. Them sorting through all the less-desireable candidates and presenting my company with a short-list of suitable candidates was considerable value.

What else to consider

Here are some additional aspects you’ll want to keep on your radar if you intend to hire an intern:

  • Internship contracts are short and simple (at least in the UK). Whereas that will seem beautifully easy compared to employment contracts, don’t forget to make your intern sign a separate confidentiality agreement. In this day and age of social media, rating websites and online revenge, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got this risk covered.
  • Don’t expect it to be the same as hiring a staff member and expecting them to work on XYZ. You have to take the time to think of tasks that will give them new knowledge and experiences. It’s a two-way experience.
  • Keep in mind that interns also need to be judged on the basis of potential, not just on the basis of what they have achieved so far.
  • Be open and fair with your intern whether or not there is a prospect for the internship to turn into a permanent position. If there isn’t, then don’t promise it.
  • At the end of their internship, give them constructive feedback about areas where they have potential to improve. Ideally, give them some concrete ideas how they can achieve such an improvement. In our case, we gave our intern a few (disused) books about subjects we felt might be of interest and use to her, and we invested £200 into sending her along to a course that other staff members were attending.
  • Offer them references, and “push” them if necessary. I had our intern create a LinkedIn profile at the end of her stint, and two of our staff members provided references there. Young people might underestimate the value of that.

Inspiring Interns also publishes a blog, which you may find a useful resource. Or connect to Inspiring Interns co-founder, Benedict Hazan.

If you don’t happen to be UK-based, there are without doubt other agencies out there to hire interns in your geographical region.

Assuming you manage the process carefully, it’s a step I recommend. Not the least, as you also do your civic duty of helping the next generation into the saddle.

We all were young once and received a bit of help in creating our career, didn’t we?

Background information about this article: This website does not accept advertisements or remuneration for recommendations. The company on behalf of which I hired an intern paid the regular rates to Inspiring Interns. This article was written purely on the back of my positive experience.

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