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Using Interns Effectively in the Gig Economy.

November 16, 2020 4:32 PM | Theresa Peek

Finding reliable short-term help for your business can be a daunting task. While a skilled professional member of the gig economy can be one option, an intern can potentially serve you well – if you know how to use their talents effectively.

Make a plan

The first step to incorporating and using new talent effectively is developing a detailed understanding of your organization’s needs. Are there specific projects or initiatives that you need help with? What steps will be required to finish them? Breaking a project down into pieces can be a useful exercise, for you, too, and will help you identify areas where you can enlist help.

Say you’re developing a stakeholder report. You can’t hand off that project to an intern wholesale, but by putting together an outline of the needed pieces, you’ll be able to select areas where an intern can help with research, information assembly, or other tasks.

A solid understanding and documentation of what you want an intern to accomplish is key to a successful experience for both parties, says Renee Kelly, assistant vice president of the Office of Innovation and Economic Development at the University of Maine and one of the coordinators of the Innovate for Maine Fellowship program, which connects Maine’s best and brightest college students with exciting, growing companies in the state for meaningful internship experiences.

“An internship is not the same as hiring an employee,” says Kelly. “It’s about a learning experience for the student. Employers shouldn’t expect to find someone who can do everything right out of the gate – part of your responsibility in hosting an intern is to mentor them and teach them and guide them.”

That mentoring, teaching, and guidance requires active participation from the employer throughout the internship experience.

“If you want your intern to be engaged, you need to be engaged with your intern,” says Emma Wilson, co-coordinator of UMaine’s Innovate for Maine program. “Most employers want to offer a great experience to an intern, but other demands can get in the way and interns tend to get stuck doing low-level work when they’re capable of much more. Employers who plan projects and organize check-ins around deliverables and goals create a much better and more efficient experience for the intern and for themselves.”

This is especially important in the COVID-19 era, when an intern may be hired from afar to work remotely.

“When your intern is not working in your physical office, it’s even more important to establish plans with milestones and connect regularly in a one-on-one virtual meeting,” says Wilson.

Goal-setting and regular check-ins are key to ensuring that expectations are well understood. Employers should focus on communicating clearly and encourage interns to reiterate assignments to verify that important details have not been lost in translation.   

Experience not (always) required

Though you may feel you need a more experienced worker, there are some surprising advantages to incorporating entry-level talent, such as an intern.

“Interns bring a fresh perspective that can really add value versus being locked into a traditional way of doing things,” says Kelly.

In addition to helping employers innovate, interns can grow into roles or help reshape them.

“Sometimes employers don’t realize that an internship can help them develop someone who can hit the ground running,” says Kelly. “It may start out as a short-term need but hiring an intern can help you define or redefine a role and nurture talent for the long term. Productive internship experiences build goodwill and a sense of investment that’s hard to replicate.”

Finding talent

Now that you’re armed with some strategies to make effective use of an intern, how do you find one and bring the person on board?

Colleges and universities are a great place to start, says Kelly, and winter is an ideal time to recruit.

“You want to start early,” says Kelly. “Students are already exploring their options and starting your own planning process now ensures you’ll be able to onboard your intern swiftly so they can get right to work.”

Programs such as Innovate for Maine can help employers not only find talent but manage the HR logistics around hiring and training that individual. This can be especially helpful for startups and small businesses who can benefit most from an intern but may lack the hiring infrastructure enabling them to bring a new person in easily.

“A program such as Innovate for Maine helps identify strong candidates, provides training, supervision and mentoring throughout the internship, and handles all the paperwork, including around payment,” says Kelly. “For early-stage companies or even established businesses, these services can really streamline the process and ensure the employer can focus on providing the best experience possible.”

To learn more about Innovate for Maine, please visit the program website.

This is the fourth and final post in ACE’s Blog Series on the Gig Economy.  Our next series will be on Leadership.  It will begin on November 30, 2021 and will run through January 2021.



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