Business owners tend to think of interns as free labor. But interns can be much more than that Tweet This.

Michael Mehlberg should know. He’s a co-founder at Modern da Vinci, a Leesburg, Virginia-based website that offers articles, videos and other tools that promote small business development. He also ran a summer internship program for six years at a small company that built software security products.

Based on his experience, Mehlberg offers these tips for small business owners who want to maximize their internship programs:

Mistake #1: Assigning interns only menial tasks

Interns who are loaded up with boring and uninspiring projects might not perform up to their potential. Mehlberg says that if you give the interns real problems to solve, pair them with skilled employees and expect them to perform, they might step up and surprise you with their dedication and ability.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), a nonprofit in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that connects college career services and employers who hire recent graduates, says giving interns real work is crucial to the success of an internship program.

NACE-recommended practices include checking intern job descriptions, holding meaningful orientation sessions, having an intern manager to make sure the intern stays focused, and having frequent communication with interns to find out how they perceive their experience.

Mistake #2: Expecting interns to work for free

Unpaid internships can be legally problematic, if the company receives any benefit from the intern’s activities.

The interns in Mehlberg’s program were paid hourly wages. The company also made a commitment to hire at least one intern at the end of each term.

“We had groups of six interns come in every summer,” Mehlberg says. “At the end of three months, we would hire one. The interns knew this, and so did our team. The interns worked hard to get recognition, to perform well. At the same time, our team evaluated them for their performance up until the end date.”

Mistake #3: Saying no to student interns

Hiring interns from a local university can help you tap the most current information in your company’s field since those students can bring what’s being taught to them to your company. That can help to keep you and your employees on the leading edge of what you do, Mehlberg says.

It can be difficult for students to find affordable short-term housing for an internship, so many appreciate help with their housing needs as a component of their compensation, according to NACE. Employer-paid or employer-subsidized housing may be taxable compensation.

Mistake #4: Being vague about the terms of the internship

Mehlberg says company owners should set a start date and end date for every internship so the relationship doesn’t become stale and never-ending. Give interns goals and set aside blocks of time for employees to work with the interns to accomplish specific tasks.

An orientation session can help ensure that interns and their managers have the same expectations for the program, and an internship handbook or website can help guide interns, answer their questions and present your company’s policies in a “warm and welcoming” way, NACE states.

Students also value flexible scheduling so they can manage their internship along with their classroom time, homework and social activities.

“A flexible schedule can make them feel less chained in by an unchanging routine,” NACE says.

Avoid these mistakes and your interns could be an important and productive part of your small business.

Want to learn more about hiring interns? Check out D&B B2B’s podcast with Cindy Lewis of California Lutheran University.

Photo Credit: andreeas, Twenty20