How to create a positive work experience program

Bringing a work experience student or intern into your business can sound like a good idea. An extra pair of hands might be useful and it can be satisfying to help prepare young talent for the world of work.

But developing a valuable work experience plan takes time and thought. If you haven’t considered the kinds of tasks that can be completed or observed, this new addition to your workplace can feel like burden, and their opportunity to learn may be wasted. So how can you make work experience a positive process for everyone involved?

What are you looking for?

A decision to bring in a work experience student or intern depends on what you want to get out of it. If you’re looking to practice your mentoring skills and show a young student what it’s like to work in your industry, you might be best to choose a work experience student.

If their work is mainly observational, you may not be required to pay them. For example, if you have a graphic design business, a work experience student from a local secondary school could practice their skills, benefit from your feedback and learn about a typical working week. As they are not contributing to the output of your business, you are not required to pay them.

If you want someone who can contribute to your business while learning on the job, an intern from a university or vocational institution may be a better choice. You may be entitled to pay them the legal minimum wage for the type of productive work they're doing, however many universities have internships as part of coursework requirements, and while companies may not be required to pay interns in these instances, you may be asked to complete a performance assessment. You can find details about your obligations on the Fair Work website or speak to a university’s internship adviser.

Finding talent through internships

Irene Falcone, founder and CEO of Nourished Life, is an advocate of internships. She says you need to think about the kind of experience you offer and the work you can reasonably expect an intern to complete.

Irene Falcone, founder and CEO of Nourished Life

Falcone has had several interns come into her business since she launched in 2012, and now counts many of them among her paid employees.

“Pretty much my entire management team started as interns,” she says. “I just couldn’t do everything myself and I could see they had a lot of talent. When my business grew, I said ‘great, you’ve got a job’.”

Benefits on both sides

Falcone currently has two interns working in her business. The experience is valuable for them, but she says it also increases her own sense of satisfaction at work. “I get a kick out of being able to teach interns the practical side of what they’re learning at uni,” she says. “It’s also been a good way for me to identify talent and skills that I need in my business.”

While interns are learning from you, you may also have an opportunity to learn from them. “One of the biggest benefits of having interns in my business is that they have grown up with social media and they know things like how to cut a video on an iPad,” she says. “If I didn’t have interns with these skills, I’d have to outsource it at a huge cost. An intern can do it in just one day.”

Pat O’Hara is currently working as a social media intern with Falcone’s business and says he’s putting his theory into practice. “I’m studying social and digital media at UTS [University of Sydney] and it’s very theoretical and conceptual. Interning at Nourished Life is a completely different way of learning because [I’m] actually applying [my] skills.”

“It’s the best thing you can do if you’re a student.” – Pat O’Hara, social media intern.

O’Hara began working casually with Nourished Life moving boxes in the warehouse when he heard Falcone was seeking a social media intern. “It’s the best thing you can do if you’re a student. It’s great experience, you get paid and it looks good on your CV.”

Worth your time

While it may take time to teach an intern the ropes, this will depend on the type of work they will be doing for you – Falcone says it’s worth every minute. “Any small business owner who thinks they’re too busy to teach someone has probably got the wrong attitude because you’ll never grow if you try to do everything yourself,” she says.

Falcone suggests being specific about the skills you’re looking for to ensure the internship is valuable for everyone. “If an intern wants to work in social media, for example, don’t put them on bookkeeping tasks,” she says.

“Find their passion and feed it because they’ll come up with great ideas for you. When you can find the right interns, nurture them, slowly give them more responsibilities and watch them grow.”

Ready to take on your own intern? Visit these websites to find out more:

- Fair Work Ombudsman
- GradConnection
- Australian Government’s National Work Experience Program