Interns: a help or a hindrance?

November 9, 2017

The demand for internships is growing all the time.

Young people at various stages of their education are being encouraged to seek work experience to help them develop their skills and knowledge, add something meaningful to their CV and, hopefully, open a path into employment. Statistics on exactly how many internships are offered and filled each year are hard to come by – many of these opportunities are informal arrangements – but a 2014 Forbes article titled The Unhappy Rise of the Millennial Intern quotes a figure of 1.5 million in the US, with 97% of large companies running intern programmes of one sort or another.

I say that because internships can vary greatly, from a valuable and enriching experience for both company and intern, to a complete waste of time for all parties. So what is it that decides whether an internship is a success or failure?

It largely comes down to how you, the employer, approach it.

Why many businesses are reluctant to take on interns

First let’s look at the pros and cons of internships, beginning with the cons.

1. A drain on time: On-boarding any new employee is time consuming and interns are no exception. You have to find suitable candidates, interview them, train them and keep them supplied with meaningful work. For small businesses in particular, this can often lead to a sense of ‘it would be quicker to do the job myself’, especially given the short-term nature of most internships. Why invest all that time and effort in someone who’s only going to leave again in a few weeks or months?

It’s tempting to save time by taking on the first candidate who applies and then handing them menial tasks, but this is of little or no benefit to either party and is a missed opportunity. A sullen intern who knows they’re being fobbed off will quickly become a drain on your regular staff and may even spread ill-feeling about you and your business to the wider world. Safer then to skip the whole idea and hire an experienced part-time employee instead. 

A sullen intern who knows they’re being fobbed off will quickly become a drain on your regular staff and may even spread ill-feeling about you and your business to the wider world.

2. A risky investment: What if, having invested all that time to hire and train your intern, they don’t have the aptitude to grasp the tasks you set them or they’re simply not cut out for your workplace? You will no doubt have heard stories about interns who show up late, put in no effort or initiative and even walk out on the job. They only came in the first place because their school or college required it of them. They’re not really interested in working for you, especially for no (or little) pay. Such a negative presence can have a detrimental impact on your company’s productivity and progress.

How internships can benefit your business

OK, now for the pros.

1. Budgets and busy periods: Cheap labour should not be your motivation for hiring an intern, but the fact remains that they are a cheaper human resource than regular employees, and in many cases are even free. Having an extra pair of hands without having to channel money away from other areas of the business can be very beneficial, especially during busy periods. There is a significant long-term benefit too: by instigating a well-planned internship programme, you create a pipeline of keen, knowledgeable recruits who can fill any full-time vacancies that arise with sufficient experience of your business and are ready to hit the ground running, thus saving you the usual costs of recruitment, induction and training.

2. Try before you hire: Related to the above point, if you’re nervous about hiring full-time staff, or are looking to fill entry-level positions, internships can provide a perfect trial period. Over the course of the internship, you’ll get a sense of their performance, the quality of their work, their attitude and personality, and will be able to assess how they would fare on your staff. If you don’t feel they’re right for you, you simply wave goodbye at the end of the internship and there are no hard feelings or difficult severance agreements to worry about.

3. A new perspective: Coming to your business with no preconceptions, an intern will be able to offer a fresh perspective on how your company operates. They can challenge the norm, shake up traditional ways of working, disrupt conventional processes and spot problems that you and your employees might have overlooked. If your products or services are aimed at a young target audience, an intern from that demographic group could provide valuable insight from within the camp.

4. Tech skills: The generation seeking internships today grew up with the internet, social media and smart devices. They understand innately how these tools work and are adept at navigating the technology. So whether you want an objective opinion on your social media marketing plan or the user interface for an app you’re about to launch, their assessment is likely to be a valuable asset to your marketing team.

How to make a success of internships

The first thing to remember is that an internship is a two-way street. Treat it as a way of getting your filing done for free and you won’t reap the benefits. Approach it as an investment in a very malleable piece of human capital and you will.

The first thing to remember is that an internship is a two-way street. Treat it as a way of getting your filing done for free and you won’t reap the benefits.

In a study of 345 interns, the University of San Diego, California, found that some of the most important factors for effective internships were clarity of tasks, communication, ongoing feedback and mentoring. Another study by the Academy of Management Learning & Education, New York, found that interns’ satisfaction was influenced by factors such as the significance of the tasks they were given and the wider learning opportunities, supervisor support and feedback available to them.

You can achieve this by implementing a structured training and evaluation programme from the beginning and assigning a specific project with clear goals and measurable, progressive outcomes. Explain to your interns what they’re likely to achieve while they’re with you, whether it’s the chance to interact with an expert in their field, a physical acknowledgement of their work (for example, their name on a paper) or hands-on experience in areas they know less about. Combine this with ongoing monitoring and supervision and both you and the intern will have a clear picture of success and how to get there.

A mentorship programme like this will enhance your business’s working culture as well as ensuring your intern’s wellbeing and continued learning. If they see it as a valuable experience, they’re more likely to treat it as one.

Should I offer a rotational or departmental internship?

Do you want your intern to stay in one particular department, slowly growing in responsibility, or do you want them to move around the company so that they get experience across the board? Departmental internships require less training and will allow your intern to gradually take on more and more meaningful work, potentially allowing them to deliver more back to your company. On the other hand, a rotational internship will give your intern a broader skill set, allow you to see how they perform in a range of different roles and see where they might fit best. If you hire them at the end of the internship, they will have an excellent understanding of how your business works as a whole.

So it’s a question that will often be determined by the length of the internship and the size of your company. Larger companies and longer internships offer more scope for rotating around different departments, whereas a short stint in a small firm will probably be best spent gaining in-depth experience of one department.

Special requirements when hiring interns in the UAE?

In order to hire a national as an intern in your company, they’ll need to be on either a student or parent visa, whilst international interns will need an employment or a mission visa. The process of hiring international interns also involves slightly more paperwork. Many UAE universities now incorporate internships into the student curriculum and offer internship programmes. 

In order to hire a national as an intern in your company, they’ll need to be on either a student or parent visa, whilst international interns will need an employment or a mission visa.

To intern or not to intern?

Interns bring their fair share of benefits and challenges, risks and opportunities, but if you approach them as a clearly defined part of your business strategy, internships are well worth the effort. At their best they benefit both intern and employer – the intern can bring their knowledge and enthusiasm to the workplace, while you can help them develop in a way that will enhance the country’s talent pool and might well enhance your own workforce long-term as well.

Despite the significant time investment and amount of planning, if you can determine your business goal for the internship, recognise that it’s a professional learning opportunity for them rather than low-cost labour for your company, and execute a structured training programme with these elements in mind, your internship has every chance of success. In which case, not only will you save money, but in the long term you’ll gain a loyal employee base and even help to inspire a new generation of future business leaders.

Setting up your own business has never been easier. Virtuzone takes care of it all so you can focus on what matters – building your business. For more information about company formation in the UAE mainland or free zones, please call us on +971 4 457 8200, send an email to info@vz.ae, or click here.

About the author: Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup
About the author: Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup

With a history of business successes, Neil Petch is well known in the UAE and beyond as a visionary entrepreneur with a passion for helping others establish and grow their own businesses. Neil founded Virtuzone in 2009 and quickly established it as the region’s leading company formation expert, before launching Virtugroup, a holding company that has a wider mandate of supporting startups from establishment; to successful market entry; and all the way through to exit.