In addition to being a printmaker, Jen Hewett has worked in human resources for the last decade.

Photo by Christopher Stark

If you’re knee-deep in orders and way behind on just about everything, finding an intern who will work for experience instead of money might seem like an obvious answer. But bringing in help for your creative business, even temporarily, isn’t an endeavor you should enter into lightly.

I want to clear up one thing first: The biggest myth about interns is that you can hire them without paying them. Most of the time, this is totally illegal. United States labor laws have strict guidelines on what constitutes an unpaid internship, and if you’re hiring someone to help you make things or market your work or otherwise be more productive, you probably won’t meet those guidelines.

“If you’re bringing [on] someone who helps you with your business, that person is technically an employee,” says San Francisco printmaker Jen Hewett. “If you’re telling them what to do and when to work, that’s an employee. If someone is working on their own, that’s an independent contractor.”

In addition to her art career, Hewett has worked in human resources for the past decade.

“When you bring on an intern, that means you bring in someone who you’ll have to put a significant amount of training and resources into,” Hewett says.

If you get monetary benefits from someone who is working for you, that person cannot be an unpaid intern.

Unclear about what qualifies for an unpaid internship? The U.S. Department of Labor has a six-part test:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer who provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If your internship doesn’t pass this test, you are legally required to pay at least the minimum wage in your city and state, so the difference between a paid intern and a part-time employee is mostly semantics.

In Canada, laws regarding internships vary from province to province, but are similar to the U.S. rules. In the United Kingdom, it’s a little more complicated, but anyone who could be considered a worker or employee has to be paid the minimum wage, with some exceptions for educational experience.

Finding an intern or entry-level employee

Before you hire an intern or part-time employee, it’s important to start defining what you need help with. Knowing whether you are looking for extra sewing power or marketing assistance or customer service help allows you to evaluate the applicants based on the skills you need.

“If you’re super disorganized, you probably don’t want to hire someone else who is also disorganized — you want to fill those holes you have,” Hewett says.

Local high schools and colleges are a good place to scout, or you can put a fun “we’re hiring!” graphic on social media or your website.

“If you’re posting an unpaid internship on social media, be prepared for a lot of pushback,” Hewett says. “More people are realizing that unpaid internships are often illegal and very unethical. People get all sorts of nasty comments.”

Rae Hoekstra of Made by Rae in Ann Arbor often draws on the students of the nearby University of Michigan. When she advertised her $15-an-hour internship on the university job board, she had a lot of applicants to interview. She hired one art student with sewing experience who stayed with her for two years and recommended a friend when she graduated.

“It’s about finding someone who learns quickly and is self-motivated and takes initiative in organizing things or taking care of stuff,” Hoekstra says. “These are basic, good-human work skills.”

Before she posted the ad, Hoekstra emailed her accountant to figure out how much it would cost — in addition to the hourly wage for an employee, you’re responsible for taxes and withholding.

“I think it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also more expensive,” Hoekstra says. “It’s easier to pay people under the table, but it’s also not legal.”

Craigslist has worked the best for Mei Pak in hiring help for her Tiny Hands Jewelry line since 2012. She was looking for people who were dedicated to precision and accuracy — she found it in a jewelry designer and a former tile setter who brought pictures of cakes she’d made to the interview. You also need to interview for fit, Pak says: “If you find the right people you enjoy working with and actually enjoy having conversations with, it makes it a lot easier.”

Rather than interns, Pak pays her contractors a per-piece rate for this at-home work. The U.S. Department of Labor defines this as industrial homework. (Check that link for all the details on the rules of home production.) Paying per piece, Pak says, incentivizes her assistants to become more efficient if they want to make more money per hour.

“There are some people who would be happy to make anything, but you want someone to be paid enough to be enthusiastic,” Pak says.

Managing an intern

If you’re becoming a manager for the first time, Hewett recommends creating a list of expectations and a training schedule of what you expect the person to do and what you’re providing.

“The worst thing you can do is just throw them at something,” Hewett says. “Bringing on an entry-level employee, they’re probably just getting paid minimum wage because there is a certain amount of training and there are a certain number of mistakes that will be made on the front end.”

“When you hire your first employee, it’s really important to check in regularly,” Hewett says. To make sure they’re on-task with the projects, set a weekly, structured check-in time, even if it’s only 15 minutes.

“New managers might see someone is still doing something wrong after a month. But did you show them how to do it the right way if they were making mistakes incrementally, or did you wait until you were frustrated to say something?” Hewett says. “If someone can’t do the job, that’s fine. But often it’s that they weren’t given enough training. Junior people might not know how to ask.”

“Being a boss can be really hard and challenging. It took me a while to figure out that your role is not as a friend, but you have to crack down and be a boss,” Hoekstra says. “You wanna be cool and fun and have this great workplace, but that can make it harder to be a boss and say, ‘That’s not working,’ or ‘You’re not doing this, and I need you to do it.’”

“The first few months are going to be hard,” Pak says. “As a maker, you’re trying to figure out what to give your help. It makes you do the work to create those systems.”

Pak says that before she hired an assistant she didn’t closely monitor inventory levels and forecast what should be made in the next week. Now she uses StitchLabs to create status updates. Another timesheet system lets her assistants enter how many items they produced.

If you think about using an intern strategically, it will get easier.

“One thing that’s really fun for customer service or social media marketing jobs, as they’re working through the process, have them keep documentation and create a manual of how they’re doing their job,” Hewett says. “It’s possible you haven’t documented these things that well before. A former client had a great customer service department, and [the employees] would only stay a year or two, but they would document everything and built this great resource.”

When you make the right intern hire, it can be the start of a beautiful relationship. Kristen Rask of Schmancy in Seattle uses interns for Urban Craft Uprising, a semiannual indie craft show. One of her interns has been working with her for four years and they’ve built a lot of trust in that time.

“My worst nightmare is getting sick on the weekend of Urban Craft Uprising, but I feel like if she was there it would still go well,” Rask says.


Did you know that Craft Industry Alliance members get access to a library of skeleton contracts to download and use? Save money on legal needs for your business by becoming a member.

Grace Dobush

Grace Dobush


Grace Dobush is a freelance journalist and the author of the Crafty Superstar business guides. She’s also the co-organizer of Crafty Supermarket, an indie craft show that is celebrating its sixth birthday in Cincinnati on Nov. 28. Grace has written for many print and online publications including Wired, Quartz, The Economist, The Washington Post, Writer’s Digest, and Cincinnati Magazine. She’s also worked on the editorial staffs of HOW, Print, Family Tree Magazine, The Artist’s Magazine and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. We’re thrilled to welcome Grace as a Craft Industry Alliance Writer.

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