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Hiring Summer Interns

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The beginning of summer is something we all look forward to. Think beach vacation or a ball game. It’s also the time to find creative ways of avoiding the ridiculous heat. But beyond preparing to face the uncomfortable and sometimes scorching heat, as the founder of a startup, one other thing you should consider preparing for is an influx of applications from potential summer interns.

Now that school’s out for the summer, many students and recent graduates are looking for opportunities to gain valuable work experience, and many employers are looking to extend that.

Whether you’ve already hired your interns or are still in the process of searching for the perfect candidates, it’s crucial that you take the time to consider some of the legal requirements and challenges involved in hiring interns.

At the outset, you should decide whether you’re going to make your startup’s internship program paid or unpaid. If your budget allows, you can never go wrong with paying your interns at least the minimum wage. If, however, you decide to hire unpaid interns, you must follow a set of guidelines and refrain from looking at this as simply getting some “free labor” for the office.

As a general rule, every individual who performs work is considered an employee and must be compensated for his or her work. In the private for-profit sector, interns and trainees can be seen as an exception to this general rule. However, for this exception to apply, one must meet a rigid set of criteria.

The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division has issued a fact sheet on what it takes for an unpaid internship program to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act. Carefully review this information to ensure that you meet the right criteria when determining whether you could offer an unpaid internship.

According to the fact sheet, the internship program should benefit the intern and be similar to training, which would be given, in an educational environment. Both parties should agree that no wages will be paid, and that there isn’t necessarily a job waiting at the end of the internship.

In addition, employers should not use interns to “displace regular employees” and should work “under close supervision of existing staff.”

While every startup is different and each program should be tailored to the startup’s business and culture, there are a few things every startup should do to make sure unpaid internships are properly offered.

Make it a learning experience. Create an actual internship program that is structured around a classroom or academic experience. Prepare a syllabus and make the experience as structured and educational as possible for the intern.

Give them meaningful tasks. Make sure that the work that the intern does is not just condusive to the workplace but also intentionally structured to benefit their personal growth.

Show them how your staff works. Provide your intern with regular shadowing opportunities. Avoid hiring interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment your existing workforce during specific time periods where it’s too busy to even make time for your interns. Brining on unpaid interns as substitutes for hiring someone else to do the same task isn’t wise.

Set a fixed period of time. Don’t use an internship merely as a trial period for the intern before hiring and don’t make promises to hire at the end of the internships if it’s not in your control.

Good internship programs are beneficial and valuable, and it’s well worth the effort for startups to create structured programs that guarantee interns meaningfully contribute. Interns who have a positive experience at a startup that’s looking to build the next big thing can go on to make great future entrepreneurs and founders who inject new ideas into the exciting startup ecosystem.

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