Hiring interns can increase your department's creativity, cost effectiveness, and competitive edge--but only if you manage your interns as thoughtfully and strategically as you would your employees.

Planning is the key to any successful internship program. Without careful planning, an intern can actually be more of a hindrance to your team than a help--and that does no good for you or the intern. So treat your internship program as an integral part of your staffing plan. A well-planned program benefits the intern as much as your creative team and company.

Before posting any openings or talking to any candidates, determine the goals for the internship, the specific tasks to be performed, and the compensation structure. Some internships are still unpaid (see below), but that may prevent highly-qualified candidates from applying. Be prepared to offer greater flexibility to unpaid interns, as they may need to work a second job to pay their bills. It is common for employers to offer a stipend or hourly wage. As a general rule, include interns in your worker's compensation--even when they are unpaid.

As an alternative to an hourly wage, consider offering a subsidy that can be spent on new tools, registration to a conference, or magazine subscriptions. This can be a very cost-effective investment in a future employee's creative contribution.

Another critical decision in the planning phase is determining who will be responsible for supervising and mentoring your intern. This is a fantastic opportunity to groom an up-and-coming employee for a future management position. The supervisor should establish specific goals for the intern and communicate the team's expectations, assign projects, provide ongoing training, and offer frequent feedback on completed work.

Interns should always be given the opportunity to tackle meaningful, complex work--not "busy" or clerical work. Remember, interns can be instrumental in contributing fresh eyes, new perspective, and new technology to a well-established creative team. Whenever possible, interns should be allowed to work on projects from start to finish so they can truly understand the full life cycle of design projects.

Make sure you build into your program a way to spotlight your interns' talents. For example, consider running a design contest. This can be fun and very informative. A contest allows you to gauge not only a candidate's creative chops but also the ability to interpret instructions, turn in work on a deadline, and design within visual identity and branding guidelines.

At the end of the internship, make sure you conduct an exit interview so you can solicit input on improving the experience for interns in the future.

Interns--properly hired and managed--are a true win/win for most creative in-house agencies. They can help you stretch a tight budget, cover staffing gaps during peak workloads, and evaluate potential future employees. More important, they can provide a real infusion of creative energy and new blood. But you will be well-served by focusing as much on what you can offer an exceptional intern: real-world experience, networking contacts, and a stepping stone to future employment opportunities, especially important in today's tight job market. So take the time to plan your program well, hire carefully, and mentor your interns aggressively. The long-term ROI will more than justify the short-term costs in time and money.

Sidebar: Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, you do not have to pay an intern who qualifies as a "learner" or "trainee," as defined by the following six criteria:

  • An intern cannot replace a regular employee.
  • An intern is not guaranteed a job with your organization upon completion of the internship.
  • Both you and the intern are aware that they are not entitled to wages.
  • Interns must receive training.
  • Interns must get "hands-on" experience with equipment or processes used in your particular industry.
  • The skills learned on the job must be considered transferable.