Should You ​Use Interns in Your Startup?

Gary C. Bizzo  |


As the saying goes, ‘you get what you pay for.’ The concept of a practicum or internship is free student help with the emphasis on ‘free.’ Businesses these days are cutting corners every way they can and with the offer of free help it’s easy to say yes.

In my case, interns are in the form of graduate students completing their MBA degree in either finance or marketing at a recognized university, the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). I admit I’m new to this having only been an Adjunct Professor for a few months at the NYIT (Vancouver Campus). So, when the Dean asked me to supervise some practicum students I jumped at it.

I’ve heard from students that practicums were like a quick A on their GPA and businesses thought they were more fluff than substance. When I took it on, I promised myself everyone would benefit from this opportunity.

In Canada, a practicum is usually spread over a semester and the student pays the university to place them in a ‘work for experience’ program with local small to mid-sized businesses. I’ve often used the terms practicums and intern interchangeably, however, in Canada you must pay interns a salary while practicums treat it as a university course for which the student must pay for the placement.

In my case the NYIT, is an MBA Graduate program and like other local universities, tries to find experiential placement as part of the learning experience. We all realize that a good education is not enough in the marketplace. Even with an MBA, students are told that they need advanced education like a CPA or a PMP to get a job. The practicum helps both student and business in so many ways.

At NYIT, most of the students are from South Asia (mainly India), they average about 24 years old and many have advanced degrees already but can’t pursue more education without North American degrees.One of my students with an MBA in India had tried to get into UCLA for her Ph.D. in Marketing but was told she needed an MBA from the US or Canada. It’s tough out there!

I approached several start-ups in my quest to find a place for a dozen of my best students. It’s not as easy as it sounds to place free labor. I suppose nothing is really free when you consider the time managers and staff have to spend to essentially take these students under their wing and supervise them.As the professor who places the students, I am the liaison between the student and the start-up so the rough edges may not show. I think there are a lot of advantages to working with these young people.

Benefits for the Students:

1. Observe the Workplace

I’m not going to place students in a field that they are not familiar with. The practicum allows them to see how the theory actually works in the marketplace. The reality is often an eye opener. When I was a budding commercial photographer as a young man I worked behind the scenes at a local studio and got to see the harsh side of the business. It prepared me for my own studio.

2. Acquire New Skills

Learning by doing has always been one of my mantras and dropping a young person into the middle of things is often a trial by fire. At their age these students suck up new skills easily.

3. Build Self-Esteem

Working for a few months with a growing start-up tech company or a world class organization is certainly a confidence builder.They need support and the right placement to get the most out of the experience.

4. Understand Practical Versus Theory

The problem with most academics is they don’t have the work experience to go with their Ph.D. It’s the same for students. They usually can’t find a job upon graduation without some experience especially if they are foreign students. A couple of my students actually said they would pursue jobs in academia because they couldn’t find work.

5. Networking

Networking may be at the top of the list of reasons to work for a business, especially a start-up. The student may assume that if they shine in their placement there may be a paid opportunity down the road. It makes logical sense.

6. Establish Structure

Most of the young people I know need structure in their life. What better way to get it while developing skills around their planned goals after graduation?

OK, so we’re not all altruistic. A start-up founder may say - what’s in it for me?

1. We Don’t Have Enough Resources

This is one of the most often heard statements at a start-up. It may take some time to train them but these people are educated, smart and have great ideas. Use them as you would any staffer.

2. New Perspectives

I’m actually using two students for my own project this fall. I certainly can use assistants and the number of projects I have on the go allows me to give them some credible experience. I’m excited about having someone working with me as I tend to be a lone wolf and use contractors.

3. Satisfaction

You can get a lot of personal satisfaction mentoring someone. It can be a learning experience for both parties. It keeps you on your toes.

4. Special Projects

Start-ups are generally on a shoe-string budget and very lean. Given the opportunity to bring on a worker to do research on a specific project is a dream for a founder. Millennials are research experts!

5. Improving Your Skills

From experience, in my classroom, I’ve learned a lot by going back over marketing techniques and texts that I had used years ago and become reacquainted with them because of my teaching. The same is true when you are trying to provide ‘best practices’ to an intern. It all comes back to you and makes you a better employer and leader

6. New Talent

Hi-tech start-ups in Vancouver have a tough time finding talent. It’s a bad scenario after you have on-boarded a new staffer to find in a month the person is a dud. This way, with no expectations, one might find the perfect talent for your start-up.The intern makes a great recruiter when they go back to school with a positive experience at your business. They will tell their peers about the great work place you have.

7. Cheap Labor

If you look at students as talent versus a cheap source of labor both will get more out of the experience. Most businesses underutilize the practicum because they haven’t taken the time to plan the goals of both parties.

8. Your Own Practicum Program

One of the critical issues with finding placements for practicums is that it is college-driven. Imagine if your business had one in place with strategic partners, goals and projects in mind every year that you wanted to have done. Planning would make a practicum experience mutually beneficial.

Let’s be honest, practicums are not for everyone. Companies under-utilize them and maybe the student is not ready for the workplace. The concept is valid and the qualifier comes in the form of good candidate selection as well as thoughtful business owners. You are in the position to guide future generations.

As Margaret Mead, famed anthropologist, once said, “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.”

Gary Bizzo is Adjunct Professor, Integrated Marketing Communications, MBA Graduate School of Management, at the New York Institute of Technology (Vancouver Campus)

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