Once a rarity, internships are now practically ubiquitous.
Experts estimate that the number of UK internships has increased by more than 50% since 2010 - and it's not difficult to understand why.
There are bucketloads of benefits for employers and interns alike.
Interns benefit from a CV boost, as well as gaining skills and experience. They also get a taste of a particular career path without needing to make any long term commitments. Finally, there's the real prospect of landing a permanent job at the end of the placement.
For employers, internships can be viewed as a tool for permanent recruitment. You get to see the strengths and weaknesses of potential future employees in action at your business, before committing to hiring them in a permanent role. Interns are also, in most cases, enthusiastic and highly skilled - and they're keen for an opportunity to showcase their skills.
In most situations, internships are also a source of relatively cheap labour, as interns compromise on pay in exchange for their chance to get a foot on the career ladder. We'll talk more about intern pay shortly.
So, you've decided that starting up (or revamping) an internship programme at your business is a good idea.
But hiring an intern doesn't guarantee success.
If you want your internship scheme to really work, you've got to put some time into planning how best to manage it.
We'll take you through seven different processes that are critical to an effective internship, forming a complete guide to internships for employers looking to start a scheme, or revamp their current approach.
Finally, we'll answer all your frequently asked questions about internships.
An Employer's Guide to Internships
Click the links to jump to each section.
Preparation and Payment
If you want your intern to do more than make the tea, you need to put some thought into how the internship will actually work.
When your new intern turns up on their first day full of enthusiasm, if they're greeted with blank stares and a confused receptionist, that enthusiasm will vanish.
And even if you inform the office of your intern's arrival, if they're left to sit at their desk with nothing to do, it's not going to be a positive experience for anyone involved.
So if you want your internship program to be effective, what can you do to prepare for it?
- Clearly define the intern's role. List their tasks and responsibilities, in addition to the team they'll be working with.
- Consider the benefits of the role for the intern. In what ways will the internship help their career prospects? Will you consider offering the intern permanent employment at the end of their contract?
- Decide on the skills you require from the intern. Although most interns will lack experience at work, you can ask for specific skills when advertising the role, such as programming, leadership, or design skills. Be realistic
- Work out how you will accommodate the intern. Figure out who'll manage the intern, and who'll mentor them. Check you've got the equipment and software they'll need to do their job.
- Decide how much to pay the intern. Consider their expenses, too.
In some sectors, the majority of internships are unpaid [PDF] - or only offer travel expenses.
Today's competitive job market means that many interns are willing to work for little to no pay because the experience is so highly valued. Effectively, many interns trade-off current income in exchange for future income.
Although this arrangement suits both parties, there are huge question marks over the legality of unpaid internships.
It comes down to this: if your intern can be defined as a worker, they're entitled to the national minimum wage (NMW).
If the intern is undertaking the placement (of up to one year) as part of a higher education course, you don't need to pay the NMW.
If the internship doesn't involve any work, and instead involves work shadowing, you don't need to pay them the NMW.
If they're classed as a volunteer, you don't need to pay them.
For the intern to count as a volunteer, generally the following criteria need to be met:
- They have an arrangement with you or your organisation which does not entitle them to a financial reward or benefit in kind for work they perform
- They don't have to turn up to work if they don't want to
- They won't be dismissed if they fail to do the work they were providing
It's important to note that a lack of employment contract doesn't necessarily mean the intern is a volunteer - contracts can be oral or implied as well as written. You also can't add a clause in a contract to say that they're a volunteer and not a worker, if the reality of their role suggests otherwise.
Neither can your intern 'sign away' their rights to the NMW.
Even if your intern is completely happy with their unpaid internship, bear in mind that interns are entitled to claim back pay for unpaid placements during the last six years - so if they can prove they should've been classed as a worker, you'll be left out of pocket.
Now that you've planned for the arrival of your new intern(s) and figured how much to pay them, you need to go out and search for them!
The vast majority of internships are filled without being advertised openly - in most sectors, it's still about who you know.
It may be quicker and easier to find interns simply by asking your family and network, but if you want to find the best interns, you need to cast your net a little wider.
Treat intern recruitment in the same way as any other recruitment process.
Write a job description, list essential and desired skills, and talk about your company. Invite the most promising applicants to a phone interview, then an in-person interview. Make your decision and offer them the job.
The only significant change you should make during the recruitment process is to acknowledge that interns shouldn't be judged on their lack of experience.
Instead, focus on potential.
In particular, ask candidates to talk about how they'll apply their transferable skills and, if applicable, academic knowledge to the role.
Find out about candidates' motivations for applying - specifically what they'd like to gain from the placement.
Given that an intern may be at your company for only a handful of weeks, it's important that the induction process is swift yet effective.
But don't be tempted to rush induction. Remember that your interns will have little to no experience of working an office job - processes that may seem obvious to you might not be so straightforward to newcomers to the world of work.
Go through all the usual induction processes, including:
- An outline of the role and its duties
- Company information, including company structure
- Introductions to senior staff and colleagues
- Key company documents, policies, and practical information
In general, follow the process outlined in our onboarding checklist.
Instead of stretching out the induction process for too long, we recommend organising numerous short meetings with relevant colleagues to keep track of the intern's progress and any struggles they might be having.
To make this process easier, be on the lookout for interns who are fast learners and work proactively.
If the internship is less than a couple of months long, the learning process will probably last the duration of their stay - and that's OK. By using a mix of formal and informal methods during induction, you can work to find a balance between helping the intern find their feet and giving them the room to think for themselves.
As with permanent employees, for interns to work to their full potential they'll need the guidance of an effective manager.
However, interns tend to require a different management style to experienced office workers, simply because they're completely new to their role.
Therefore, alongside a traditional manager we recommend assigning a mentor to look after your intern (or a small group of interns). This mentor doesn't need to be a senior member of staff - they could be an entry level employee performing a similar role to the intern.
What matters is their familiarity with the intern's duties, as well as other aspects of company culture and routine. They can act as a mentor not only for work-related tasks, but also to help them fit in with other aspects of office culture.
Whoever you choose to mentor and/or manage the intern, set aside time in their schedule for meetings between them. If their mentor has to choose between fulfilling their own duties or helping the intern out, they're not going to help the intern out!
Of course, even though the intern is just setting out on a career path, companies should not have low expectations. You will need to make some adjustments to your usual management style to take into account their inexperience, but you should still expect your interns to make valuable contributions to your business.
When the placement draws to a close, it's good practice to hold a final exit interview.
Discuss the intern's performance during their placement, including areas in which they excelled, and where more work is required.
Talk about their achievements and contributions, and any positive comments made by their colleagues.
This meeting isn't just useful for the intern - it's also the perfect opportunity to find out how you did as an employer. Ask the intern which aspects of the role they enjoyed, and which they struggled with. This'll help you refine the internship program for future interns.
Your interns will also look back on the experience more fondly if you provide a reference letter to them at the end of their placement - without needing to be prompted.
And of course, if you have a permanent role available and you think the intern meets the requirements, let them know ASAP.
Internship FAQs for Employers
Do you have more questions about hiring interns? Here's a round-up of some of the most frequently asked questions about internships from the employer's perspective.
Q: Are unpaid internships legal?
In most circumstances, no. However, if the intern is on a placement as part of their academic course, or if they can legally be classed as a volunteer, you don't need to pay them.
This is a grey area because internships aren't defined in UK law, so we have to look to other areas of employment law for guidance.
Q: Why are the majority of internships still unpaid?
Despite the questions over legality, unpaid internships are still seen as acceptable because both parties involved in the arrangement benefit. Graduates are eager for opportunities to gain experience so that they can land a higher paid job in the future. Employers obviously benefit from the low cost of labour.
What this means is that the intern is unlikely to push back against the lack of pay - it's not in their interest to cause a fuss when plenty of other eager graduates would happily take their place.
Q: How can I make sure that my intern isn't classed as a 'worker'?
The easiest way to do this is to make sure your intern doesn't do any work! If they only shadow other employees, you don't need to pay them.
Also, make sure your interns can come and go as they please - if you insist on set hours, this implies there's a contract in place.
N.B. We're not lawyers and this isn't legal advice - please consult an expert!
Q: What's the difference between an internship and work experience?
The distinction is blurry, but generally speaking, work experience tends to cover a period of one to two weeks, whereas internships usually last at least a month.
Internships tend to be close to 'real' jobs, whereas work experience usually involves plenty of work shadowing and only straightforward tasks.
Q: Where is the best place to advertise internships?
If you have a local university, search for their careers website - you should be able to advertise internships through it, so long as you meet their requirements. Generally speaking, you won't be able to advertise unpaid roles on these types of sites.
Q: The company won't be able to hire any of the interns at the end of the placement. Is it best to be open about this?
Yes. Some interns won't actually want a permanent role and are just in it for the experience. It's important to be upfront with interns if there's no prospect of a job at the end of their internship - but you can always tell the interns that you'll certainly bear them in mind when it comes to future recruitment rounds.
Have any other internship questions? Comment below and we'll answer.
Internships can play an important role in your business, providing you with highly skilled, enthusiastic employees with relatively low salaries.
Of course, it'll take a little more time to get an intern up to speed than it would a more experienced employee, but it's to be expected - interns are just setting out on their career path.
But with careful planning, recruitment and management, interns can excel at your business. They can provided real value to your company - and who knows? One day, they might turn into your top performing employees.
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