Interns Aren't Just for Fetching Coffee Anymore

The fall signals many things, including the start of a new semester that brings a fresh batch of enthusiastic interns to ValoreBooks and many other companies across the country. Teaching and mentoring is part of our mission; not to mention that these students are also our audience.

It seems we learn something every time a new intern walks through the door. Here are a few practices we follow to give these young people a positive and valuable educational experience while also benefiting our business:

Choose wisely. When you are looking for interns, it's important to think down the road and ask yourself if this person could eventually work for your organization. Many times, an internship is a dress rehearsal for a job. Look for students who really "get" that and take their responsibilities seriously. Make the recruitment, interview and hiring process as professional as it would be for actual employees. This diligence upfront might mean you cut down on training time by keeping students longer, instead of seeing different faces come in and out each term.

Give them responsibility. Put students in charge of a few projects that they can run themselves. That might mean drafting a weekly e-newsletter, taking pictures at events and posting them on the company Facebook page, or writing blog entries from the intern's perspective. You want the student to experience project ownership for several reasons, including developing professional pride and "real life" job skills that translate to a more powerful resume.

Ask their opinion. This is always a good practice for any organization, but for us at ValoreBooks, it's essential. That's because college students ARE our audience. We NEED to know what the 20-year-old Broadcast Journalism major from San Diego State thinks of our product. It's a focus group at our fingertips. Keep that in mind for your business - what perspective can this age group bring? It's a real person in that demographic that you can bounce ideas off of. To that end, don't falsely assume interns can only help by being in charge of your Facebook or Twitter initiatives. There are other ways in which they can add value to your organization.

Play up their interests. If the intern likes public relations, we'll have them work closely with our marketing department. Others might be good at Spanish, graphic design or video editing so it's important to utilize those talents. Ask them about their unique skill sets and interests when interviewing to see if there's a good fit for something within your company in which you need help and they can enjoy doing. You might also want to encourage students to keep track of all the projects they've completed and create a portfolio that they can use to shop around for a future job at your company or elsewhere.

Take them everywhere. If you have a meeting outside the office, don't forget the intern. Provide them with business etiquette training and have them sit down at the table and shake hands with the big wigs. Invite students to company-wide and team meetings, professional development seminars, media events and fun outings such as holiday parties.

Grunt work = team effort. There is a big difference between working for someone and working alongside someone. Many interns get unwanted projects dumped on them. That's not our policy. If 1,000 envelopes need to be stuffed, we're all pitching in, including me.

Be creative. If you don't have much work to give an intern, make something up. Interns can craft fake campaigns for real clients, come up with business plans for customers or brainstorm product ideas. In fact, your next "big idea" might be inside the mind of an enterprising 18-year-old. These fake projects can challenge current employees to innovative further.

Bottom line--interns aren't just for getting coffee anymore. They can play a vital role in lending perspective, skill or even a future employee to your company.

Bobby Brannigan is the founder and CEO of ValoreBooks, a fast-growing online provider of cheap college textbooks. He can be reached at bbrannigan@valorebooks.com.

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