Looking to build a great internship program? Read this

Talent compass to recruit and hire the right skills.
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Intern programs can be a great recruiting tool, and you may be surprised by how much work interns can do if you challenge them.


This article will help your organization build an outstanding internship program starting with the recruitment of interns and going all the way to hiring interns to be part of your permanent team. The best companies position their intern programs to be a pipeline for sourcing talent and to accomplish extra work that otherwise might not get done. Other companies treat their intern programs as an afterthought and the priority is often something as simple as providing summer jobs for children of senior executives. Since many companies are in this latter category, the companies that adopt the ideas in this article will differentiate themselves and become a place the best talent targets for full-time work once their college days are done.  

Best Practices for Recruiting Interns

  • Don't delegate recruiting to the HR department. While HR plays an important role in the process, successful internship programs do not treat the sourcing of interns like a takeout order (e.g., "I will take one programmer and two analysts this year"). Instead, send a line manager to interview for your interns and, while they are on campus, have them do a presentation for candidates and other students to educate them on your company.
  • Recruit early in the year. If you start to think about your summer interns in the spring, you have already lost out on some of the best talent. Think about recruiting in the fall or, at the latest, in January as this will give you a good chance of landing the best students. Doing this requires an early commitment on your part, but being proactive will pay big dividends.
  • Target a few schools and recruit there every year. One of the most important success factors for recruiting interns is to develop a relationship with your target schools. Try to have continuity with the people you send on campus so they can develop a relationship with the placement office, key professors and senior school administrators. Also, it is important to recruit every year so the school and the students do not have to question whether you will be hiring interns in any given year. I remember hearing quite a bit of discussion during 2008 about skipping our intern program that year but I fought to keep it going. At my most important school, they told me they usually had an easy time placing their students but that year was going to be tough because so many companies made the decision to cut back. In the words of the placement director: "Economies come back and we will remember who our friends are in the future."
  • Target interns in their junior years. Targeting younger interns can help you get access to talent at some of the best programs, but my experience is that it is difficult to attract them back in following years because they will want to round out their resumes with other experiences. Hiring junior-year interns is perfect because the next career step for these students is to find a full-time job.
  • Recruit interns who have a geographical connection to your site. Recruiting from local colleges or recruiting interns who grew up in your area makes a great deal of sense. Otherwise, you run the risk of using an intern slot on someone who may be willing to work at your location for a summer but is unlikely to return for a full time job.

Getting the most out of your interns

  • Make the first day great. Remember that most interns will be experiencing something very new when they walk through your doors. They probably didn’t sleep well the night before, and they are probably worried they are going to fail. Do the following: make sure someone greets them when they arrive (e.g., preferably the familiar face of the line manager who interviewed them on campus); try to ease their anxiety (e.g., "all we ask is that you work hard and, if you do that, we will help you succeed"); introduce them to the team; make sure their technology is working; and take them to lunch.
  • Create opportunities for interns to meet other interns. Forming an intern community can help you provide a better experience for your interns. This can be done by holding training sessions and social events for all the interns in the company. Your interns will enjoy meeting people like themselves who they can talk to about their experiences, and they will learn about other parts of your organization.  
  • Give your interns real work. This is the most important step you can take to ensure a successful internship program. Don't make the mistake of giving interns the low priority projects that have been kicking around for years. There is a reason they never get worked on! One strategy I like is to use interns to work on project functionality that is highly desired by the business but which is not in scope due to tough cuts made during the budgeting process.  
  • Challenge your interns. Too many people assume interns are only capable of doing simple work. If you can get past this and challenge them, they will surprise you and, in addition, you will be providing them with a much better experience.
  • Don't introduce your interns as interns. When you take an intern to a meeting and introduce him or her as "an intern working for us this summer," the reaction will be something like "how cute!" and very little will be expected from the intern. Instead, introduce interns just as you would any other employee (e.g., "this is Julie who will be working as an analyst on the project").
  • Have a senior manager meet with the interns a couple times during their assignment. This will send a strong message to your interns that their work is valued and the senior manager may be surprised how much he or she learns about the inner workings of the department!
  • Assign your interns an "extra credit" assignment. One aspect of working is the fact you often are asked to take on assignments that are not part of your "day job." I like to give interns a real project to think about as a group to give them a feel for this reality. For example, I recently asked an intern group to look at a metric we weren't hitting and suggest steps we might take to improve our performance.

Closing the deal

  • Ask your interns to recap their experiences in a document. This will not only allow them to reflect on their experiences but may provide you with information that will allow you to improve your department.
  • Make full-time offers before your interns leave for school. This is critical. The most important step you can take to improve your yield of interns is to make sure they know they have an option with you before they return to school.
  • Give your interns a gift to remember you. A great idea is to give interns a coat with the company logo on it. If your intern has had a good experience with you, they will be proud to wear your coat around campus (and advertise for you while doing it).
  • Keep in touch. Make sure someone who worked with the intern touches base with them every month or so. Of particular importance is to let them know when milestones are hit on the projects they worked on during their internships.

As a final point, think about how you would like to be treated if you were an intern. It is a very different experience to be treated like someone who has been brought in to do odd jobs versus someone who is a valuable member of the team.  Adopting the ideas in this article will help your company treat interns the right way, and before long, the best students will seek you out rather than waiting for you to find them.

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