I will say that interns are a great resource. We’ve had some here and for the most part, it has gone well.

The backstory as to why I’m writing this now? I spent a total of two days of billable hours fixing the work of a Client X’s intern from this summer.

This wasn’t doing new work, this was fixing work that had already been done. To the tune of $75/hour.

Doing this has pained me, not just what it is financially costing this client but because of what it can cost you. Because if you think this upcoming generation of ‘digital nomads’ always knows what they are doing on a computer, I am here to tell you that is not even close to always the case. Whether your intern is 13 or 31 or 113, the rules are the same.

Give them a structure.

So in this case the intern for Client X did keep the site up to date… but there was no method to where the information was placed on the website. A new page was created for every event and there was no hierarchy. For example, if you wanted to see all the events that happened in 2013, there was no way to do that easily since they were scattered all over the place.

Also, all the pages were formatted differently. Some were centered with big pictures, some had thumbnail size pictures and were left justified. Some even were in different fonts. So if you looked at a couple in a row, it looks like a crazy person maintained this website. Only it wasn’t someone crazy, it was someone who had no structure.

As the person hiring, you need to create the structure for the person to follow. When in doubt, create the how-to document for them so they can refer back after the initial training.

If part of the reason you hired this intern to create methods, have that be the very first thing they do. For example, say that you want a consistent new format for every flyer your company creates. Have them not only figure this out (possibly after researching how other places use flyers for event promotion) but make the how-to document so anyone creating a flyer in the future can follow the instructions. This will ensure the work is done consistently.

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Evaluate their actual skills.

With Client X, the intern told them he was a website expert. But before giving anyone the keys to the car, why not give a small driving test? Have them write some copy for your website or chose and resize images for a slideshow. (These can be given to someone like me to upload very quickly.) If that goes well, have them do something a little technical like make an intake form that gets automatically sent to three people when filled out, including yourself. Over the course of a couple weeks, you will have a very good idea of what they can do (they do it right away, it works great) and what they can’t (they’ll ask a lot of questions, the work doesn’t get done, an outside expert sees the work and warns you).

I’m not saying give them fake work during this period. Give them things that need to get done… but do so in small pieces of increasing complexity, testing different skill sets during the process.

I can say this from experience: I once worked with a subcontractor where I assumed that, since they could use Twitter to send tweets, they could successfully schedule these tweets in Twitter. I went in to check their work, only to see they had all the tweets scheduled to go out on the same day instead of throughout the month. Had I not caught it, this would have been disastrous. (31 marketing tweets from a company = lots of people unfollowing and otherwise annoyed) From then on, I had the intern write the tweets and I did the scheduling. The moral? Play to their actual strengths, not the ones they mention on their resume.

Note: If you were going to have this person for over a year, by all means train them on more difficult tasks. But if the point of an intern is short term work that helps you move forward, you are best playing to strengths versus training out weaknesses.

Double note: If you don’t know enough to evaluate this person’s skills, find someone who can help you. This is not a step to skip.

Check their work. 

Just because an intern is there, doesn’t mean you have less work. It means you spend more time on other things, one of them is checking this person’s work, especially at first.

If you don’t like what you are seeing, speak up. Talk to your intern, showing them concrete examples of what you want different. Otherwise they will do what they are doing for the whole period of time, making cleanup for the person behind them that much more substantial.

Give them training.

Give your intern a leg up by giving them some training. An online seminar, adult ed class, or even someone coming into the office for a couple hours can be relatively low cost and give the intern some of the skills they need to do the work you want them to. If during the initial testing period you find, for example, that they can’t code well in HTML but you need them to do that regularly, offer to pay for their time to take a Lynda.com class on the topic online. If you want them to edit video but no one in your office can use the software you want them to use, look around for a local expert and have them come in to train your intern. (Sure, I taught myself how to use Sony Vegas with the owner’s manual at one job I had but it took me a couple months. I could have gotten there a lot more quickly if someone would have sat with me even for a couple hours to show me around.)

While this idea of training seems like an up front cost, this will save you hundreds of dollars of productivity time or staff time redoing intern work. Bonus? You can send a staff person with the intern to also get the training so then you have two people in the company who can do new things, one who will leave and one who will be around to help other people in the future.

In short:

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Not because interns can’t be smart or helpful or life affirming… but because they need some help from you to get there.