Internships aren’t just about grunt work anymore. With the right program, you can develop young talent and lay a foundation for recruiting brilliant young minds to work for your company. The first step is establishing the right kind of program and paying your interns to ensure you’re attracting talent that can contribute to your organization.
Smaller companies especially have an opportunity to edge out larger competitors by providing interns with opportunities to develop and staying in touch after graduation. By developing and working with interns, you can foster growth in an inexperienced individual who could one day become a major player for your company.
When creating an internship program, it’s important to be thoughtful about your goals and what you have to offer to interns. For many businesses, internship programs are a way to get some extra help. However, that isn’t always the best way to teach an intern about the business or see if they can develop the skills needed to succeed in your industry.
“We’ve hired former interns to become full-time employees multiple times,” said Liz Wessel, co-founder of Way Up and visiting group partner at Y Combinator. “I like to think of it as a two- to three-month interview.”
During her time at WayUp, Wessel and team matched employers and job candidates seeking full-time roles and internships. That work allowed Wessel to get a glimpse into the internship programs of several companies, and allowed her to refine her own.
Here are some tips for creating a fruitful internship program for your business.
Having a person in charge of your interns is crucial to building a program that pushes candidates and ensures they’re getting the most out of their experience. The best part is, for small businesses, this position doesn’t need to be a separate full-time position. Internship coordinators can build a program that ensures your interns are having a collective learning experience. Steven Benson, founder and CEO of Badger Maps, is an example of someone who puts in extra effort to develop interns.
“During the internship, I teach classes on various business topics, give career advice, do trainings to make them successful at their job role and help them develop valuable skills,” Benson said. “Interns at Badger are executing on major projects from beginning to end, and thereby get meaningful work experience.”
Providing a mentor means giving interns an avenue for personalized feedback on matters that extend beyond their work. You want to provide a dynamic feedback experience for the intern, so assigning them mentors from upper-level management may not be the best idea, since they’ll likely already be receiving feedback from their direct supervisor.
Instead, provide your interns with junior-level employees to create a relaxed relationship that promotes professional growth and development. After all, if this is an intern’s first corporate experience, they may have questions that they don’t feel comfortable asking their manager.
Setting goals for your interns and revisiting their progress throughout their tenure is another important step in development. Wessel said that interns will often work on two or three major projects, depending on the length of their internship. The key is tracking their progress and making sure there’s a defined beginning, middle and end to their work.
“It’s really nice for an intern to feel like they’ve come in, they’ve started something and they’ve completed that, as opposed to them feeling like they’ve … been working on something and they never get to see it through to the end,” Wessel said.
As your interns get into the swing of things, make sure you have some structure set up so they are constantly receiving feedback and are on track with your goals. This is an important step in providing a personalized experience, but it’s also crucial for you as a business owner. With the right feedback, you’ll get the right kind of work from your intern.
Josh Skalniak, former public relations manager with Fingerpaint Marketing, said that managers would meet each week to review what each intern was working on and develop detailed to-do lists for the upcoming week. These meetings were for the managers only and served to provide a basic framework so that interns didn’t get lost in an abstract corporate environment.
“We all get to learn who is assigning [interns] work and how much,” said Skalniak. “While we could simply ask the intern how their workload is going, we often find that interns are eager to please and don’t speak up when they are overworked. The meeting gives us a broad picture of their workload and keeps us from overloading them.”
Wessel said that managers should also have weekly one-on-one meetings with interns to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
How you structure your internship program depends on your business’s needs. However, one key insight is to ensure you’re constantly communicating with the interns. Otherwise, they may drift from their responsibilities and lose sight of their role within the company.
“[If they] have never worked in a corporate environment before … they might not realize they should speak up about the fact that they are lost,” Wessel said. “They might not even realize that they’re lost; it’s part of being so junior.”
Once your internship program comes to a close, try to maintain at least a tenuous connection with your former interns. There’s no telling what opportunities they could move on to and what doors they could open for you in the future. Staying in touch with interns acts as proactive networking. By keeping in contact, you provide the opportunity to reconnect in the future.
Of course, another great reason to keep in contact with good interns is if you want to offer them a full-time role once they graduate. A good internship program acts as a training ground for young talent. You can filter out interns who aren’t a good fit for your company and discover new talent that could one day serve your company on a full-time basis.
These tips and best practices are a starting point. How you set up your internship program will be specific to your business and reflective of your organization’s values.
It’s important to foster strong communication between your intern and multiple sources, like mentors, managers and other interns, and create a collective experience where an intern can feel like their work contributed to your overall organization. By developing bright young minds and fostering talent in your interns, your company can retain great people and be the starting point of illustrious, successful careers.
“We’ve created a program and environment that enables [interns] to be successful and thrive at Badger as well as in their future jobs,” Benson said. “This is obviously a big investment on our part, but that is how many of our former interns got jobs at Google, Apple, LinkedIn, Square, Salesforce and a bunch of other cool companies.”
Determine how often you want an intern at work each week and for how many hours each day. You should also consider how long the internship will last. A typical range is between two and three months.
Once you understand the amount of time an intern will be available to your team, you should do your best to scope out just what it is you’ll have them working on, both in the day to day and over the course of their entire internship. Ideally, you’ll create programming that gives them a holistic understanding of your workplace and some valuable experience that can support them in their job search once they graduate.
If you’re working with an intern that will soon graduate and have vacant jobs that need filling, you may consider their internship as a trial period. If they develop well and show signs of interest in joining the team, consider extending the opportunity for a formal interview for an open position. Of course, getting to this point means creating a well-planned internship schedule that shows you a candidate’s potential.
One of the biggest signs a job candidate will be successful is demonstrating a willingness to learn and continuously grow in their role as it evolves. During your intern’s time with the company, keep an eye on the questions they ask, their willingness to adapt, and how much information they’re able to absorb and contextualize.
The other aspect that should never be overlooked is that you should pay your interns. Paying your interns will allow you to access talented candidates who may otherwise have never applied. Plus, it may be illegal not to pay interns minimum wage. Federal labor laws, as well as some state’s laws, may require it.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) offers a six-part test to see if your intern can go unpaid:
Paying interns “makes them feel appreciated; it makes them work harder,” Wessel said. “It will allow for greater diversity when it comes to you hiring, because if you’re not paying your interns, it probably means you’re only going to attract people whose parents … can [financially] support their kids. If they’re doing real work for you, you should pay them.”
If you want to create a valuable internship program – both for your interns and your business’s recruiting prospects – it requires some deliberate planning and intentionality. Gone are the days of using an intern to run errands or grab coffee for the team. Today, interns expect and deserve real work experience that prepares them for the workforce. And who knows? By offering that experience, you may just find your team’s next top performer.
Jacob Bierer-Nielsen contributed to this article.