A New (Older) Take on Internships

CHICAGO ( MainStreet) -- Summer is intern season in corporate America, when college students descend upon offices across the country in the hopes of getting resume-worthy work experience -- and ideally a job offer.

Traditionally, interns have been students in their teens or early 20s who get educational credit in exchange for their unpaid labor. But that demographic may be changing. Older, more experienced workers who want to move into a new industry are finding that internships are the key to getting a foot in the door, and some businesses have begun to alter the terms of their internships to widen their pool of applicants.

According to a 2010 survey conducted by CareerBuilder and Harris Interactive of 2,500 hiring managers, about 10% had received internship applications from workers over 50, and almost 25% reported that they had seen interest in internships from workers with more than 10 years of experience.

For small businesses, offering internships to people who are long past their college years provides a low-risk way to test out talent at low or no cost. Business owners can see how a prospective employee meshes with the rest of the team and performs day-to-day before taking on him or her as a hire.

There are benefits to the interns as well, especially those who are looking to switch careers. Interning gives them a chance to try out a new field with no long-term commitment, learning what it really takes to succeed in a particular industry.

The restaurant chain Moe's Southwest Grill recently created an internship program as a way to broaden its pool of potential franchisees. The company, founded in 2000, has since expanded to more than 450 locations in 33 states, a rate of growth that President Paul Damico credits to strong interest in fast-casual dining. So far this year, same-store sales are up 9% this year over last.

While much of the growth comes from franchisees who are already active in the fast-casual sector and are looking to expand, the company is also open to newcomers, with one catch: Anyone wishing to buy a franchise must have restaurant management experience, no matter how great their financials or impressive their previous career.

"We were getting lots of great people applying who had the capital and were in the right markets, but they didn't have restaurant experience," Damico says. Rather than change the requirement -- and lower company standards -- management decided that they could help provide the restaurant experience, by setting up unpaid internships at its company-owned stores in Atlanta.

That's right: Potential franchisees fly to Atlanta on their own dime, pay for their own lodging for three weeks and spend their days doing everything a paid-by-the-hour Moe's employee would do -- for no pay. Interns greet guests, prep ingredients, wrap burritos, shadow managers as they place orders with vendors and even clean the bathrooms. Doing the grunt work not only helps potential franchisees understand and identify with future employees, it shows them the day-to-day demands that come with running a restaurant. If one of your employees doesn't show up, you'd better be prepared to chop all that day's tomatoes yourself.

"People want to get into the restaurant business because they think it's sexy, but they have no idea how to run one," Damico says. "This gives them a chance to look under the hood. It also shows their level of commitment to our brand." Of the eight people who have completed the internship so far, only one has not gone on to open a Moe's franchise.

Businesses thinking of starting their own internship programs should keep in mind that the Department of Labor has set certain standards to ensure employers don't take advantage of unpaid workers. The most important element of an internship is education: While interns don't need to be students, they must receive ongoing instruction and be closely supervised. The internship should be structured so that the intern walks away with specific, identifiable work experience.

If an intern will be unpaid, that should be discussed upfront, before the internship starts, and interns cannot be used to fill in for laid-off or vacationing workers. While interns should not be guaranteed jobs before they start, it is certainly legal to give interns preference when it comes to hiring.

At a time Americans are changing career paths more than ever, internships can provide a bridge into a new field, as long as the experience meets the needs of potential employer and potential employee. As Damico says of Moe's franchisee internships, both sides have something to gain: "Is this right for you, and are you right for us?"
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.