What you need to know before hiring an intern
Internships can be a great way for startups to work with talented students or graduates. Interns and employers have popularised the practice because it gives both sides an opportunity to get a feel for one another on a short-term basis.
Hiring an intern has become trickier as, unfortunately, in recent years, there has been a lot of bad press surrounding internships and the employers that offer them. This has stemmed from concerns about the volume of unpaid internships cropping up, which as we all know is an illegal and unethical way to gain free labour. The only way to ensure that you steer clear from any negative connotations is to know the law surrounding interns and to work towards ensuring that their experience is truly win-win.
Can you hire an intern?
If you want to hire an intern, it's important that you’re clear on the relevant employment rights. Unpaid internships, or only paying expenses, have become the norm - not good, not legal. Fresh graduates and students are so desperate to enter the workforce that they will forgo a salary for a short time to get something down on their CV, unknown to many of them that they legally deserve a proper wage. Some employers are all too happy to take advantage of this and will only offer to cover travel and lunch costs. Aside from the dubious ethical arguments, employers that engage in this practice are in breach of minimum wage legislation.
How much should you pay an intern?
When defined as a worker (i.e. doing more than just shadowing) an intern is legally obliged to receive minimum wage. This is currently £8.36/h for 21 to 22-year-olds. The worker cannot opt-out via a written agreement (so even if they're willing to work for free, they won’t be able to). The only way that someone can be involved in your office without being paid is either as a voluntary worker for a charity or on a shadowing scheme (but bear in mind they must engage in observation only). Knowing these rules makes it easier to understand how to plan for a short-term hire. However, if you're based in London, you should consider paying the London Living Wage (£10.85/h) if you want to keep your candidate pool as wide as possible. And you know, to be a good egg.
How long does it take to hire an intern?
The timeline for hiring an intern can vary depending on availabilities on both sides. For example, if you're looking to hire someone who hasn't graduated yet, they may be more limited in availability due to university commitments. However, graduates tend to have more availability and are often flexible around your schedule. Here at BrighterBox, we tend to place candidates at internships within 2 to 3 weeks (depending on the number of interview stages).
Why should you hire an intern?
Internships can be great for both employer and employee. If a candidate is coming straight from education with minimum experience on their CV, then an internship is a great way to test the waters with a potential career. Usually, interns will be handed real responsibility and be treated like a permanent member of staff so they can be fully immersed in the working world. This way students and fresh graduates can bulk out their CV with practical skills and knowledge. Meanwhile, you get to experience all the perks that come with hiring great talent: new ideas, different perspectives, great energy.
Hiring an intern is ideal for an employer looking to boost rapid growth over a few months. An internship is a great test period for employers who can’t afford the risks of jumping straight into full-time hiring. When there is so much to do and so little time for training, it can really help to recruit someone for a few weeks/months to see if they can jump in at the deep end and stay afloat. If they prove themselves to be valuable over time, then you'll have a 'ready-made' employee who knows the business and is guaranteed to be worth the investment.
During the internship
If you've decided to hire an intern, then you should plan the ways that they'll be able to add value to your startup - it won’t benefit you or them if they're left to drift about for the few months that they're with you.
Be certain of why you need them and where their skills will be best utilised - this will ensure that they start their first day on track and without any faffing about. When you only have someone for a short amount of time, it makes sense for them to hit the ground running. So, here are some great practices to keep in mind to ensure you're making the most of having an extra pair of hands and that it's a worthwhile experience for the intern:
1. Set out monthly or weekly goals you'd like your intern to complete - do this before they join
2. Fit in some progress checks to give interns feedback - they can then give you feedback here too
3. Allocate them a mentor - make sure it's someone that has the time to answer questions and give advice
4. Hand them meaningful tasks - no coffee runs, please
5. Give them some responsibility - this could be taking ownership of a task, helping to meet a deadline, etc.
After the internship
Most candidates head into an internship hoping that they'll make a good impression and end up being hired permanently by your startup. If they're interning as a student, then they may wish to return during their next holiday or be hired full-time once they graduate. It's best if you let candidates know upfront during their interviews whether the internship can lead to a full-time role or is only short-term.
Ultimately, it's up to you whether you have the funds or the space available to hire someone permanently, but this could be beneficial. If an intern has already spent three months or more learning the ropes, and are shining in the role, then having them stay on would be a lower risk decision than letting them go and hiring a newbie later on. When you find a great employee, you should always keep hold of them - we know for a fact they get snapped up quickly.
If you decide not to move them to a permanent position, then you should still book them in for a debrief. They'll want to know how they've done throughout their time with you and if there's anything they should work on for their next internship or graduate job. Treat this as a formal review and take the time to offer as much constructive feedback that you can put together. Remember that as much as you're reviewing their performance, they're also getting a taste for your company and its culture – so this is the perfect way to end on a high note! Also, a farewell gift for their hard work never goes amiss either, so make your parting words that bit sweeter by plying your intern with chocolates and more.
*Editor's note: This blog was originally published in 2019 and has since been updated.