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The benefits an intern can bring to your small business and the pitfalls to avoid

The benefits an intern can bring to your small business and the pitfalls to avoid
 

Posted: Wed 21st Aug 2019

Hiring an intern can be a great way to get support with routine business tasks, access new skills and help people learn more about your industry. However, it requires careful planning to make sure the intern and your business get the most out of the opportunity.

We spoke to small business owners about their experiences, from identifying suitable tasks and effective interviews to successfully onboarding new members of staff.

Creating a suitable job advert

Enterprise Nation member Zoe Whitman launched bookkeeping company But the Books two and a half years ago. She advertised for a bookkeeping assistant and was looking for someone with a finance degree. She made it clear that the business was a startup and tried to give a sense of what the work environment was like.

The job required the ability to communicate with clients and have a good attention to detail. Whitman used several qualifying criteria. The advert asked for a cover letter and it's important that the intern can follow instructions clearly, so she would reject anyone that didn't include one.

"I had a scoring sheet. These are the things I'm asking for, have they demonstrated that they can do it?" said Whitman. "I was looking at spelling and grammar and attention to detail. I needed someone I could trust to talk to my clients."

Interviewing an intern

It's important to get a sense of the way potential interns approach work. It's often difficult to get references and there's little job history to go on. However, you can ask about part-time jobs and what they enjoyed and their responsibilities. Hobbies and volunteer work are useful too as they can indicate a willingness to work hard and organisational skills.

It goes both ways. Interns need to understand what the placement involves and be excited about the opportunities offers.

Dayle Parfitt, Enterprise Nation member and founder of Activemen Clothing, thinks he wasn't specific enough during the interview process.

"There was space for an intern, the question was where to fit them in? It's a small business, so you need to do everything and it needs to fit into their course. It's very important they get what they need out of it," he said.

Parfitt worked with Cardiff University who funded the placement and gave him advice on how to define the role. However, it was difficult to reconcile the changing requirements of the business with what they discussed in the interview.

"I said to the students: 'it's important to me that you do something you enjoy, what would you like to get out of it?' That was my first mistake, I made it too open. I needed a video and they really wanted to get involved but the video didn't end up happening because it became too expensive. There's a balance between what they want to learn about and what needs to get done on a day-to-day basis," he said.

Parfitt added he found the best time to advertise is in August and September before the beginning of the academic year because most people are looking for placements in October.

How to find interns

It's common to hire interns through local universities and colleges. They are keen to place interns in small businesses and offer support throughout the process. Funding is available for lots of these programmes, often in the form of one-off grants.

All about the cooks founder Claire Ladkin hired interns through a European programme as well as a local university. The candidates had very different levels of experience.

"I tried using interns from a company placing 17-18 year-old Europeans on work experience," said Ladkin. "It didn't cost anything more than a couple of pizzas, and they were extremely hard-working and enthusiastic. But they were limited by their English language skills, which meant that the work was generally pretty superficial."

Ladkin added that she's had more success hiring an intern from a local university - "I pay properly and get good value for money".

Getting an intern up to speed

It's important to take into account how much time it will take to train an intern. Parfitt noted that as a one-man band he had to make sure he's available when interns are in the office and invest time in training.

Whitman tried process documents with screenshots to help with the onboarding process. She eventually moved to recording her screen and narrating the steps need to complete a task. The process has helped build up a bank of resources that new staff can use.

The legislation for hiring interns

An intern's rights depend on their employment status, if they're classified as a worker or employee they're normally due the National Minimum Wage. The government has detailed guidance on the rights of interns and when someone counts as a "worker".

If you're hiring university students, it's likely these organisations will stipulate employment conditions such as a minimum number of hours and, particularly, the pay students receive too.

Using internships to find talent

Whitman took on her first intern as a full-time employee. It was her first hire and the process provided a low-risk opportunity to see what was possible.

"It's worth pointing out a lot of the internship programmes have funding," she said. "That makes it really low risk. It meant I had someone that I'd trained up on the university's budget. It's been brilliant. It gave me a flavour of what I needed to understand when it comes to recruitment."

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Chris has over a decade of experience writing about small businesses and startups. He runs Inkwell, a content agency that helps companies that sell to small business owners grow their audiences through content marketing. You can find him on Twitter at @CPGoodfellow.
 

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