Every business reaches a point where it needs to expand. This is usually great for the business; expansion means more customers, more income, and ultimately, a more successful business model. However, it comes with its own set of challenges, one of the largest of which is the need for help running the business.
If you’ve reached the ceiling of your own capacity — after all, there are only so many hours in the day — what do you do?
We’ve already covered the benefits of a virtual hire over an in-house employee, but what about another option — an intern?
If the work you need done doesn’t require specialized training, such as paperwork, filing, scheduling, or organization, maybe an intern is a reasonable option instead of a virtual assistant.
For businesses, the notion of getting potentially free help in the form of an intern is what makes the idea so attractive.
But both interns and VAs come with pros and cons, and different businesses may value one over the other — but both can be an invaluable help for your expanding business.
Hire a Virtual Assistant?
A virtual assistant is one that works from home and provides his or her services remotely, without coming in to your business’ location. Virtual assistants are usually self-employed, although there are also virtual assistant companies that oversee dozens or sometimes hundreds of VAs.
Virtual assistants work as independent contractors and not employees, which means that they offer their services to their clients and then bill them later; clients do not need to pay employee taxes, insurance, or benefits, and are not bound legally under an employer-employee relationship.
Compared to an intern, a VA will usually have several years of business experience, although backgrounds will naturally vary. They provide their services through communication means such as email, phone, fax, Skype, or online work spaces.
Although virtual assistants can perform a variety of tasks, they are best suited for work that can be done virtually, such as scheduling or organizing a calendar.
They can also conduct business calls (such as contacting clients), or do writing and work online. Virtual assistants do not take up office space and may not require as much training as an intern, and can usually be available throughout the day.
According to Chris Ducker, “I think interns tend to focus too much on ‘the experience’ and ‘learning’ rather than actually ‘performing’. I’ve had two – both didn’t work out the way I wanted / needed. So… now I hire team members!”
When I was looking to make my first hire, I explored the idea of an intern since we live very close to a community college campus. But after some research I found that a remote worker would be a better fit since I was working from my home office.
However, the lack of physical presence can be a drawback; for example, if you need to explain something in person, or have your assistant do work that can only be done in the office.
Hire an Intern?
The other option is to hire an intern, which can be paid or unpaid. A paid internship is a temporary position that has the eventual goal of hiring the employee full-time with the company; however, this is not binding.
An unpaid intern, on the other hand, works without being compensated. Since the U.S. has stringent labor laws, unpaid internships must meet very strict requirements in order to be considered legal.
An unpaid internship must meet criteria established by the court case Walling v. Portland Terminal Co. in order to be legal by U.S. federal law; among these include the educational nature of the internship, as it must provide training to benefit the intern instead of exclusive benefits for the company.
Unpaid interns usually work in order to receive this training so that they can have experience to apply for paid positions.
In college, I had a couple paid internships and interviewed for a couple unpaid ones. Ultimately I decided against working for free even though I know the experience would have been valuable.
Interns, paid or unpaid, can do work for the business that requires an in-person presence; they can file, alphabetize, or sort paperwork, as well as maintain the office space and help with any other work around the office. Even if they don’t physically work from your office, interns are generally local hires, which may sit better with you than hiring someone overseas — especially if the rates are comparable.
Interns usually need to be trained, but once they are, they can conduct specialized work for the business.
Paid interns are usually hired by large businesses that can take on the extra cost; however, a small business can look into hiring an intern if they are looking to expand and would like to train an employee before hiring him or her full-time.
An unpaid intern can also be hired by either, and works well in an environment where he or she can receive one-on-one training.
Some of the benefits of an intern can include training an employee without having to shoulder the costs of having him or her on the payroll full-time, while that person is producing less work than he or she would after the training.
Interns can also allow for a slow ease into expansion instead of hiring multiple full-time employees at once. Because they often provide an in-person presence, communication is easier than with a virtual assistant (and there’s rarely a language barrier), and physical tasks can be carried out. However, the main drawback is training; your business will have to put in the time and effort to train the intern to perform whatever task is needed.
Scott Barlow, of Happen to Your Career, offers this advice:
“I’ve hired many more interns than I have VAs, 10 Vs 2. There is a different motivation set. Not in a good or a bad way just they want different things. Interns primary focus is to learn and gain experience.
“This can work out really well if you hire an intern that has a track record of being able to teach themself AND you are far enough along that you have clearly defined and have available for them the “training materials” they will need so it doesn’t take up all your time trying to teach them. Now obviously that last statement is also beneficial for a VA or anybody you hire.
“Interns can work well if there is potential that you might hire them afterwards in a more permanent position. This allows you to trial them at a lower rate while they are learning. Keep in mind the in the US both state level and federal level government agencies have cracked down and are in the last 18 months, really enforcing the definition of what’s considered an intern (for unpaid internships).”
Ultimately, the decision of whether to hire a virtual assistant or intern is up to each individual business. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, but both are an essential help for an expanding business.
Have you worked with virtual assistants or interns?
Which did you hire? Would you make the same decision again?