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Mirjam IJtsma is the president of Cultural Chemistry, a human resources firm that supports small business owners and human resource managers in implementing highly engaged workforces by providing training, coaching and support in the human resources and process improvement areas. 

Ask the Expert - Mirjam Ljtsma: Interns can work for you this summer

Summer is upon us and with that the summer internship season. Internships are not just for big corporations. Even companies that may be off the beaten path or have only a few employees can attract and retain highly motivated interns. Let's discuss how you can set up an internship program in your organization that will bring value to your company.

Learning opportunity

Interns are students who are looking for work experience to help them prepare for the job market. Summer internships are not just for college students. More and more high school students are looking for internship opportunities to learn about the field they want to enter upon graduation, or pursue in college.

The purpose of an internship is to allow students to connect theories they learned in the classroom with the practical experience of the real business world. If you want to hire summer staff to clean your office or sort your archives, we call that a summer job. That can be valuable as well, but you shouldn't confuse summer help with an internship.

Paid or unpaid?

The most common question is - Do I have to pay my interns? Well, it depends. At both federal and state levels, there are guidelines that dictate when you do or do not have to pay interns.

If the internship is a genuine learning opportunity that is part of a school curriculum, and the student doesn't bring an economic value to the organization, you may be able to offer an unpaid internship. In order to pursue this option, the program the student is attending must be approved by the New Hampshire Department of Labor.

Ask the education institution to provide a copy of the approval letter from the employment department, or call the department to find out if the program is approved. Offering an unpaid internship without program approval puts you at risk of being in violation of labor laws. The second step is to have your organization screened for internship approval by the Labor Department. This screening will need to be arranged each year you want to offer an internship, as it is only valid for 365 days. This process is generally easy and not time consuming.

If your student or business doesn't meet the criteria above, or you simply decide to pay the student (at least minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour in the state of New Hampshire), the student is considered an employee, and the same rules and regulations for employees apply to your intern.

Make the intern feel valued

When students enter the workforce, they are full of energy and new ideas, and they are ready to bring their knowledge to you. Finding a project they can work on independently will help them develop some initiative and autonomy. The benefit to you is that you finally get a project done that may have been sitting on the back shelf for years!

You can decide if the project is their core duty, or allow them to work alongside you as their mentor to develop additional skills. Have your intern accompany you on a sales call, and/or let her do a first draft of a project proposal. Introduce her to clients, "This is Janet. She's doing an internship. She's a student at State University, and we're so happy to have her." This way your clients don't expect polished and perfect, and you also set your intern up for support from your clients.

At the end of the internship, let her present the assigned project to the company. This will make your intern feel she made an important contribution and of course, allow her to work on her presentation skills.

Provide feedback - frequently

Interns are at your workplace to learn, and they are used to feedback - in the form of assessments and grades. Your useful feedback will help them grow and learn. Feedback can be presented in different formats, like scheduled one-on-one meetings, a quick "thank you" or an email with feedback, to name a few. Feedback not only helps them grow, but also provides you with an opportunity to connect and learn about their view of the world.

Appreciate your intern

Interns can be a great workforce management strategy that will not only help you get some work done, but also provide you with the opportunity to bring in fresh ideas, and to review how this person is going to do if they ever work for you.
Internships are a great talent pipeline and way to get connected with Generation Y. Consider having interns in your workplace a good deed. It helps the up-and-coming labor force gain the work experience to be successful in their career and in your community.

I look forward to answering your questions and/or responding to your comments at or


Mirjam IJtsma is the president of Cultural Chemistry, a human resources firm that supports small business owners and human resource managers in implementing highly engaged workforces by providing training, coaching and support in the human resources and process improvement areas. Cultural Chemistry is an abi Innovation hub alumnus. IJtsma can be reached at or 623-3633.

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