Finding The Perfect Digital Intern

by Ben Rosen Inspiring Interns

The digital industry is uniquely well placed to benefit from interns, says Ben Rosen, CEO at Inspiring Interns. He explains how to ensure both parties get the most out of the relationship.

Internships are still a relatively new concept for the UK. An American import, internships are generally understood to be three to six months long and are usually undertaken by students and recent graduates. They are more hands-on than traditional work experience: an intern would expect to actually undertake tasks, albeit with supervision, and not just shadow.

In the current economic climate, internships have come to the fore as a brilliant way for companies to minimise the risk associated with hiring an inexperienced worker. For graduates they provide an unrivalled opportunity to gain crucial experience, to network, and potentially to convince a company to offer you a job.

Internships are particularly suited to the digital industry. In what is still an emerging sector (at least in the slow-moving world of university careers services), graduates know relatively little of the opportunities available to them or what sort of career digital will lead to. An internship allows them to see first-hand the range of roles in this sector and also how their skill-set applies to these positions.

After all, current graduates are the first digital natives to enter the job market. This is the first generation of university-leavers who have grown up with Facebook; who fundamentally understand how social media is used on a day-to-day basis and who are comfortable with the constantly shifting online landscape.

Finding The Right Intern

There are plenty of places to advertise for interns. Regular job boards and graduate specific websites are good places to start. The pros of these are that you can almost guarantee you will get a large number of applications and posting is relatively cheap or even free. The main drawback is that all the sifting and replying to applicants is left to you. Do you have the expertise (and the time) to narrow a hundred CVs down to five interviewees?

There are internship-specific agencies who can take care of all the advertising, sifting and first round interviewing for you. The main benefit of using an agency is that, once you have decided what you want from your intern, they will come up with a shortlist of four or five of the best candidates from all the applicants and help arrange interviews. This obviously saves you a huge amount of time and hassle, but is a more expensive option than simply advertising.

Another obvious place to look for digital interns is, of course, on social media. Using strategic hashtags and searching for relevant terms on Twitter, for example, may well lead you to some suitable candidates. You may not get the same volume as posting on a job board but the potential interns are more likely to be digitally savvy and meet your requirements.

Should I Pay My Interns?

The issue of pay and internships is something that occasionally features in the media. It’s not as black and white a matter as some would have you believe, but as long as you understand your responsibilities there’s nothing to worry about. There is no specific legislation around internships and pay; deciding whether you are obliged to pay intern comes down to how their role would be defined by National Minimum Wage law.

If your intern will be closely supervised while completing tasks, if they are free to come and go (within the general framework of normal office hours), if they are not set targets or relied upon to complete essential work for the company then they probably do not qualify for National Minimum Wage (currently £6.19/hour). If your intern is unpaid, it is widely accepted that paying their travel and lunch costs is appropriate.

Conversely, if they have enforceable set hours, if they are expected to work independently, if they are relied upon to complete tasks that are key to the business, or if they have targets which they have to meet then they almost certainly do qualify for the National Minimum Wage.

Making The Most Of Interns

Running a successful internship does require some forward-thinking and planning. It will show if you are not prepared for your intern and this will be reflected in your intern’s commitment, interest and progression.

It is good practice to kick the internship off with a proper induction, as you would for a normal member of staff. It is almost more important in fact, as internships are time-limited so the intern only has so long to settle in and impress. Make sure your intern is introduced to all members of their department (or the company as a whole if you are not too large). Ensure they feel comfortable with office rules and culture – remember they may have very little experience of day to day work so do not assume they are confident about the little things you take for granted.

An intern should also have a mentor to whom they can go with any questions or queries. Normally this will be their direct line manager. The manager should be prepared to sacrifice some of their own time to helping train up the intern, answering questions and generally helping to develop them.

Normally an intern will either be working on a broad range of tasks to allow them to gain a good overview of the business, or work with a team on a specific project. For digital companies this often translates as an intern working across the digital spectrum (eg social media channels, website updates and analytics) or joining a particular campaign. Either way it will give you a fantastic opportunity to see how well a graduate applies their theoretical skills in a practical setting and for the graduate to develop their professional knowledge and experience.

Another important aspect of a successful internship is providing regular and structured feedback. This may be an ongoing, informal process or a more rigid set meeting every week or two, but either way should continue throughout the internship. Updating an intern on their performance and providing constructive criticism where necessary will help hugely in their development and potentially fast-track your intern into being your next star employee.

Within digital there is a wealth of statistics and analytics at your finger tips – providing data to show an intern where they have done well and not so well is a great way to instill good habits.

Finally, many interns will be hoping their internship will turn unto permanent employment after their placement. It is worth bearing this in mind when designing the placement – if you have no intention of hiring afterwards then make this clear up front. If there is a possibility, give the intern an idea of their chances and do not leave it to their last day to make your decision. This avoids ill feeling and makes sure the intern you have spent time training up isn’t pinched by a competitor.