For many businesses, summer means a swarm of seasonal student interns. These youngsters bring energy, cheap labor and knowledge about the latest technologies into the workplace. Managing short-term, college-age workers can pose a unique set of challenges, though. With some effort, you can ensure that your company’s intern program is valuable, effective and worthwhile, for everyone.
The Typical Internship
Almost every type of organization uses internships, from small businesses to large government agencies. Interns are usually college or university students, but they can also be high school students or post graduate adults seeking skills for a new career. Internships are popular and desirable, for both the intern and the employer.
For the intern, it is an opportunity to gain experience in the field, determine if they have an interest in a particular career, create a network of contacts, or gain school credit. For the employer, internships provide cheap or free labor for (typically) low-level tasks and also the prospect of interns returning to the company after completing their education and requiring little or no training. It’s a great way to get quality work while at the same time developing a pipeline of future talent. It’s a win-win for both intern and employer.
Internships can be paid or unpaid. Paid internships are most common in the medical, science, engineering, law, business, accounting, finance, technology and advertising fields. Internships in not-for-profit organizations such as charities and think tanks are often unpaid positions. Internships may be part-time or full-time. Typically they are part-time during the school year and full-time in the summer.
What Makes a Great Program
The intern program is an incredibly valuable and important business tool. A great internship program covers four elements:
Element 1: Clear goals and purposes
Element 2: Structure and strategies to meet those goals
Element 3: Management support and buy-in
Element 4: The experience of the interns
In order to establish and maintain a successful program, those four elements must be assessed regularly. Your program is expensive in terms of time and dollars, so regular evaluation needs to be part of the strategy.
When evaluating an internship program you need to focus on how well you are delivering on the four major elements. This is crucial. Here are the questions you have to ask and answer for each element:
Element 1: Clear goals and purposes: Determine what you want to get out of the program. What are the goals and purposes? What do we want to get out of it? Is it recruiting and training new talent? Hiring cheap summer help? Marketing our company?
Element 2: Structure and strategies to meet those goals: How are we meeting these goals? How and where are we recruiting? How are we onboarding, evaluating and tracking the program?
Element 3: Management support and buy-in: Are the right people involved? Are the managers of the interns on board with the program? Do they understand the goals? Do they have the proper training and resources to create valuable experiences for both the organization and the interns?
Element 4: The experience of the interns: Are we providing the interns with a valuable experience for them and for company? Did we meet their expectations? Did they have the experience that we promised in our recruiting? Would they recommend our organization to other interns or prospective employees? Remember, your interns are not just free workers or potential employees; they will also be broadcasting their opinions about your organization. So make sure they say the right things.
How to Develop a Great Intern Program
For the company, the most important thing is to get really clear about the purpose and goals of your internship program. You have to know what you want to get out of it before you go any further. Start with your objectives and go from there.
No matter what you decide you want to get out of it, you have to work hard to create a positive experience for the intern. Great internship programs mean spending some time to really make sure your goals are in alignment with your intern’s goals.
Today’s youth are much more interested in doing real work than fetching coffee. Make sure you provide your intern with challenging and “real” work as much as possible.
I’ve worked with some companies that have developed dynamic and innovative intern programs. Here are some ideas that work for them:
- Create a meaningful onboarding strategy for your interns. This means bringing them together for an interactive orientation and onboarding. This will help set the tone and create a sense of team among your interns.
- Consider integrating professional development workshops and trainings. Bring your interns into sessions with higher ups. This helps integrate them and make them feel connected.
- Involve managers and senior leaders as much as possible. Use a cohort approach, sponsor meet and greets or other events to provide interns with an opportunity to network.
- Provide interns with a meaty project, something they can work on above and beyond their day-to-day tasks. This really gives them a sense of worth, accomplishment and enhances the idea that they are part of the company.
- Do a proper close out with them. Find out what they liked and didn’t like, what they would do differently, what worked and what didn’t.
Avoiding the Pitfalls
Great intern programs all have one thing in common: the organization takes it seriously. Great programs require a great deal of work, thought and follow through. Many organizations just kind of slap them together, but this is a mistake. Here are common mistakes companies make and how to avoid them:
Mistake 1: Not ensuring your managers are truly in alignment with the intern program goals. It is often challenging for managers to take on the additional responsibilities of an intern, but the people managing the interns are key elements in your program’s success.
Make sure you choose the right people to work with the interns and make sure you have trained them properly and that they are on board with the program’s goals.
Mistake 2: Not providing meaningful work or professional development for your interns.
Young adults want to gain experience. This is not about simply fetching coffee; it’s about introducing them to the workplace in general and your company in particular. They want to feel they have made a meaningful contribution, so give them something real to do.
Mistake 3: All flash no fire. This is when organizations that want to use their intern program as a recruitment tool spend the summer wining, dining and schmoozing their interns instead of actually trying to see if they would be a good “match” for the organization. Law Firms are really notorious for this. They throw boatloads of money at the summer law associates trying to lure them. Sounds great, but they aren’t really getting much for their money—research shows that there isn’t much correlation between the money spent and the retention it inspires, and lots of firms are re-thinking this practice. Find a way to make the internship meaningful to both parties.
Evaluating the Program
Effectively evaluating your program is crucial to its success. Here are the right ways to evaluate:
- Hold meetings with the frontline folks who managed and worked with the interns. Do an “After Action Review” and ask: What were the interns' skill levels like? What work did you give them? How could you have utilized them more? What suggestions do you have for next year’s program?
- Do exit interviews with the interns. Hire an outsider to do this, so they feel comfortable giving honest feedback. If that isn’t feasible, offer an online or anonymous survey. Getting honest feedback is crucial.
- Keep track. You need to track quantifiable results from your program. This means you have to follow up with the participants and track returning intern ratio, referrals from interns and other quantifiable data.
If You Are the Intern
Internships are a great way to test the waters of a particular field or company. Internships are also a great way to network and make contacts in your field. Plus, internship experience is great resume fodder. More and more organizations consider internships an integral part of career development, sometimes even more so than other summer jobs.
If you are entering an internship, here are some tips to make it worthwhile:
- Take your internship seriously—even if your employer doesn’t.
- Think of your internship as a 12-week interview.
- Be clear about your personal and professional goals for the internship.
- Find out about the company’s goals and find ways to meet them.
- Request meaningful work. Volunteer to work on big projects.
- Make connections. Network and socialize with colleagues and other interns. Take the time to really get to know a wide assortment of colleagues.
- Show appreciation. Write thank you notes and send emails.
- Stay in touch! Follow up with the company.
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