A student gains experience and a workplace has an extra pair of hands.

The Christmas lead-up is busy for many businesses and, to cope, some firms take on interns as an extra pair of hands.

Julia Forsyth is a founder of Wellington-based customer feedback tech company BigEars.

It took on two interns last summer through the Summer of Tech internship programme for IT companies and is doing the same this year.

"When you're a small company, having a couple of fresh interns can bring an injection of energy and enthusiasm and create a great vibe over the summer," she says.

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"We also had some backlogged projects and it was an opportunity to get some of those important but not urgent tasks done.

"Bringing on interns gave us a bit more bandwidth to tackle some of those things that had been put on the backburner.

"And giving students the chance to gain skills and experience is a way to help the wider IT community in Wellington."

Summer of Tech CEO Ruth McDavitt says there are a few key things companies can do to get the most value out of an intern.

Preparation is important, she says, because matching your business and a specific project or projects within it with the right intern will pay dividends.

Once they're in the workplace, appointing a mentor will help effectively manage the questions an intern will have.

And ultimately, she says, a business should take on an intern for the right reasons.

"If a business is doing it for cheap labour it won't work for anyone.

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"You have to be committed and realise you're making a long-term investment in supporting an intern and making their first work experience positive."

As well as investing time in supporting an intern, many business owners stressed the importance of assessing a potential intern's attitude and cultural fit with their organisation.

The point is borne out by the experience of former intern Diane Rohtmets.

Now a designer and online manager for Dunedin-based fashion brand Company of Strangers, Rohtmets was taken on as an intern.

"I think what made me successful [in turning an internship opportunity into employment] was paying attention to the basics - showing initiative, being willing to help with anything, having a positive attitude.

"Since I've worked here, other fashion students have come through doing work experience and it has been those qualities that make people stand out."

Coming up in Small Business: How and why do some small businesses diversify into new areas? What have they learned from the process? If you have a story to share, write to: nzhsmallbusiness@gmail.com.

Sara Munro, Company of Strangers

Sara, what is your history of taking on interns?

Three interns have become employees over the past few years, and my first intern became my first employee. When it was just me in the company a graduate asked if she could do work experience or if I had a job for her. At that stage there was no way I could afford to pay anyone, but two hands meant more productivity and as soon as I could offer her paid employment I took her on.

How do you get interns?

Interns come to us in a few ways. The first is via their learning institution as part of their industry practice, where they have to do two weeks' full-time work. The second is offers from graduates who want to gain experience so they can have it on their CVs, or in the hope they'll get a job in our company. And every now and then at really busy times we ask our local polytechnic if anyone would like to come in for a few hours to help out.

How did Diane get involved with the company?

We needed an extra pair of hands leading up to iD Dunedin Fashion Week, so she started coming in every Monday. She stopped when she moved out of town to intern at Kate Sylvester, but when a position opened up with us later, Diane was the first person I thought of. She understood my design aesthetic and had her own strong aesthetic. Her work ethic was spot on - she was a pleasure to work with. Having the time to get to know her during the internship made the decision to employ her so easy. She's a key member of our team.

How have you resourced the interns in a small business?

Usually interns are either still studying or are recent graduates so they have either a student allowance or part-time work to get by, usually hospitality night work. We offer our interns a chance to gain industry skills and experience. I think that's especially important in a small business when you usually can't afford to pay them. We make it clear that our knowledge, which is valuable in the industry, is being exchanged for their time. You need contacts and hands-on experience to be taken seriously to get work. I have had interns who maybe haven't got a job with us but I've recommended them to other companies and they've got work as a result. Taking on interns does take up time because they can need to be monitored closely.

What advice do you have for others wanting to try an internship?

Diane: Have a great attitude. Usually the first tasks an intern gets are the simple, basic things but there's always the opportunity to be involved in more interesting things.

Sara: Make the most of your time in the workplace and ask questions, but remember there are confidentiality issues around a lot of creative businesses, so you won't be told or shown everything. Also, work hard and realise most of the time you'll be doing the most menial tasks and won't go straight into a key role.

companyofstrangers.co.nz/