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How to Benefit from Interns

Establishing an internship program at your fitness center takes work, but it can be worth the effort. The key is to be prepared and to know what type of individual you're looking for, as well as how the internship will work within your facility.

The fact is, students in exercise science programs need internship opportunities. For many, it is the final step required in their formal education prior to entering the workforce.As an agency in the health and fitness industry, you can take advantage of this situation, and hire an intern for your fitness center. However, getting organized to accept the kind of qualified applicants you want - and training them to benefit you both - requires some work. But don't let that stop you. Interns often become employees when their internship is up, which benefits you because they are already trained and know your facility. Read on for some tips on making an internship program work for your fitness center.

Be prepared

Determine first if you do, in fact, want to provide internships. Does someone on your staff have the time to adequately provide supervision? Although it is often thought of as free labor, it does cost time and effort to work with an intern. Interns must be trained, evaluated and given feedback. Academic institutions will require periodic communications on student progress, as well. One advantage to having interns is that, when your staff members are training others, they often recognize and upgrade their own skills. Interns can provide a healthy source of challenge for current employees. Coming so recently from an environment of research-based theory, they can help bring your staff up to speed on new position statements and research. Your staff, in turn, can help interns expand their knowledge of "tricks" of the trade. You can accept interns based on the college's or university's semesters or quarters. Some students are required to be at their internship for a minimum of 10 weeks, for instance, and the number of hours they must complete per week is dependent on the number of credits they need. On the other hand, some facilities will stipulate that all internships need to last four to six months. You can predetermine what you want, or opt to be more flexible with a plan that meets the students' needs and serves you by taking each internship into consideration independently. Keep in mind that students might have misconceptions about their schedule - that they do, in fact, still have a "spring break" or weekends off. You may determine that it works for you and allow it, or feel the need to remind students that you are a business that is open seven days a week, and need to staff it that way.

Detail your requirements

A description of internship requirements and preferences that includes education, certification and practical experience neglects to address the personality type of someone who will take initiative to approach people. If this is an important part of customer service or promoting programs in your facility, say so. State that interns must be outgoing and willing to interact with members and potential clients as an integral part of their daily responsibilities. You may think that this should be obvious, but it's important to have everything in writing up front.

Interview with a purpose

Though you are conducting an interview, you are not hiring a new employee. Your goal is to identify someone who truly wants to learn, as opposed to someone who is fulfilling a requirement and marking time until graduation. If the intern will cross-train between departments, include other staff members in the interview process. Give a thorough description of the responsibilities, expectations and a typical day-in-the-life scenario. Pose a few situations the interns might encounter (a disgruntled member, a no-show instructor for a class) and find out how well they think on their feet. Let them talk about their traits that they think will help them be successful. Assess if their communication style works for your fitness center.

Define goals

One of the greatest challenges for interns is the switch from more highly scheduled days, with due dates and exams, to a more open schedule. They often struggle with taking initiative, identifying priorities, and staying productive or on task. Help them by providing a list of items to do, then asking them to rank the list by priority. Go over the list together, and explain what should go where, and why. During daily communication, help them develop the habit of beginning with a priority list and ending with a verbal or written review of progress (while determining what to carry over to tomorrow). Interns who seek practical experience may resent time spent at the front desk, cleaning or doing maintenance. To address this, define the objectives of each task and how they connect to the mission of your fitness center. If the interns can see value, they will be more enthusiastic. Remember that interns may also lack confidence in their own opinions and hold back their thoughts. To you, they are fresh eyes and ideas, but they will need to be encouraged to share their insights. One way to get interns to value their own opinions and begin to assess things objectively is to have them conduct a customer service project. Have them call your front desk or visit various group fitness classes and report their experience from entry into the facility to their exit. You can use the information to fix problems or potential problems. Some fitness centers have had an intern visit competitors to do the same. Working independently like this, an intern gains a sense of trust and responsibility. Explain the boundaries of professionalism in your facility, as well. One intern, eager to befriend the clients at her internship, actually infringed on the boundaries of professional relations with them. Ultimately, it led to her early dismissal, due to her repeated inability to distinguish customer service from a breech of professional relations. Clarify for interns early and often what your expectations of them are, and make sure you are approachable to answer their questions about gray areas.

Customize the experience

Within your organization, you may want to focus on key areas where interns can gain experience, relative to the ability of staff to spend time supervising. One option is to have an intern crosstrain, shifting the supervisory role within your facility to various department heads. Customizing the internship for each individual allows you to use their strengths and develop weaknesses, which benefits both sides. Do you have students with an interest in fitness and sports management? Match them with a new record keeping system for membership services or personal training payroll.

To pay or not to pay

Experience is priceless. Some supervisors admit to thinking that interns should pay them! The majority of internships are unpaid; however, some do offer a stipend or housing expenses, especially if the intern is coming from a distance. Whichever route you go, establish a baseline of operation. Then, although you can't retract a stipend from an intern, you can be flexible. If you find you have an extraordinary intern, you may want to compensate them for at least a percentage of their time. Knowing that many students will need to seek part-time work in addition to doing their internship, consider offering them work doing orientations, front desk tasks or childcare duties to help both them and you.

Taking the plunge

If you're thinking an intern sounds like a lot of work, you're right. In reality, this isn't free labor or an opportunity to put a warm body into a vacancy at your facility. This has to be a learning experience for the student for it to reflect positively on your facility. But all the work need not be done by you alone. Your first intern's legacy to your organization may be to create an intern orientation handbook. It is a rewarding experience to give someone a start on their career, regardless of whether an intern makes a great employee for you.
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