What Home Improvement Pros Should Know About Hiring Interns

Interns can help your business and be a reliable source of future employees

Many students or recent grads earning their degrees in home design or construction-related fields have developed useful skills while in school but need hands-on experience as they graduate and head into the job market. Internships can be a great way to help young people gain valuable real-world experience while giving you an extra set of hands around the office or in the field.

“When a student designer is just starting out, they need to learn the things that can’t be taught in the classroom, and that’s where we can be a great asset to them,” says Nicole Salter of Harris McClain Kitchen & Bath in Monroe, Michigan. “We decided to take on a few interns because I was in their shoes once and we wanted to be able to give back to the community.”

Below, pros share their experiences in hiring interns.

The Business Benefits of Interns

Internships have obvious value for students, but they can be a boon for businesses too. Although training may initially take time, interns will eventually be able to complete more important tasks as they gain experience. “We prefer to ‘train our own,’ as we can teach them the right methods,” says Jane Callewaert of Dragonfly Tile & Stone Works in Grafton, Wisconsin. “They begin as helpers, and if the potential is there, we have an apprenticeship process with graduating levels of responsibility.”

In the field. Students with basic skills can handle entry-level tasks in the field with some supervision. “We’ve had interns help measure houses and buildings with another experienced staff person or input the data into CAD [computer-aided design] programs,” says Alan Ohashi of ODS Architecture in Emeryville, California. “Sometimes we send interns to gather basic planning and building code information or research this online.”

Natural talent. While interns are being trained in one area, they can help out with other tasks they already know how to execute. Perhaps they have some social media knowledge or marketing skills that can come in handy. “Interns often have other skills that we might need, such as graphic or interior design or construction, which we can benefit from without any learning curve,” Ohashi says. 

Getting technical. Once interns acquire more technical skills, they can even perform revenue-generating tasks. “As CAD draftspersons or designers, they can earn income for the firm,” Ohashi says. “Even if they don’t have those skills, they provide energy and enthusiasm and a different perspective. It ends up being a win-win situation.”

Finding new employees. Interns who show promise can become a strong source of talent when it comes time to hire. “We keep all of our interns’ applications and resumes on file, and throughout their time with us we’ll take notes on them. Are they on time? Do they do good work?” Salter says. “When we’re looking to hire, we’ll go through those records and find the best ones to reach out to.” In addition, interns that get hired for full-time work can get started faster because they already know the company’s design process and understand the aesthetics and design direction.

Customer loyalty. If interns aren’t hired as full-time employees, those contacts can still be valuable when they have projects of their own. “By having interns, we get our name out there, and hopefully, when they become designers, they’ll come back and use our products or services. They know they can use us as a resource and bring their clients in,” Salter says. “Plus, we’ve built a really strong relationship with the school who sends us students.”

On-the-Job Training

Before you hire an intern, it’s important to understand what’s involved. “Interns are beneficial, but you have to do your homework before having them come on board,” says Nanndini Savin of Nanndini in Los Angeles. “It is very important to establish what work an intern will perform, and it helps to have a mentor within the organization who will guide them through tasks, answer questions and give feedback on their performance.”

Salter offers a list of activities interns can do that don’t require too much oversight:

  • Allow them to shadow you when you’re talking with clients so they can learn how to speak and present to them.

  • Let them watch you as you do design work so they can familiarize themselves with real-world programs and processes.

  • Have them read through and organize resources from showrooms so they can learn product knowledge.

  • Give them an independent assignment. Salter had her interns measure their own kitchens at home and then do a mock design.

Where to Find Interns

Ready to hire an intern? “Go to the student activity center and job center at your local junior college,” says Terrence Howell of Terrence Howell Art & Home Stagingin Santa Rosa, California. “Be very thorough on what you’re looking for on a job post, and soon the phone will start ringing. There are a lot of design students seeking an internship. It’s worked for me twice before. The best worker I’ve had came from the local junior college.”

If you still live in the same city as your alma mater, reach out to teachers or department heads and let them know you’re seeking interns.

What Should You Pay?

While many interns are happy to accept no pay in exchange for valuable experience, unpaid internship programs must meet certain requirements, according to the U.S. Department of Labor:

  • The internship must be similar to training that would be found in an educational environment.

  • It must be for the benefit of the intern.

  • The intern cannot displace paid employees.

  • The employer won’t necessarily benefit from work the intern is doing, “and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”

  • The intern isn’t promised a job at the conclusion of the program.

  • Both the intern and the boss have an understanding that it’s an unpaid position.

Salter did not pay her interns because the program met the above criteria and internship experience was also a requirement for students to graduate. “At the end of the program, we did give them a gift card to Pier 1 or some other design place,” she says. “It was just a small way to appreciate them, and they were really happy and surprised because they weren’t expecting it.”

If you decide to offer a paid internship, check out the industry averages and the cost of living in your area. Or you can pay whatever makes sense for your business. “I usually give them what they ask for, as I was a student once in their position and the money was much needed and appreciated,” Ohashi says. 

This story was written by the Houzz Industry Marketing team.