How to Build an Effective Internship Program in 6 Easy Steps

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It's official – gone are the days of using interns as simple "go-fers." Even if you don't currently have an internship program in place, you've likely considered bringing on interns to not only enhance your workplace but so you can help guide and develop future employees. 

Internship programs offer tremendous benefits to businesses in terms of increasing productivity and recruiting well-suited staff members – especially in small- to medium-sized businesses. However, simply deciding to utilize interns in your organization is only the first step. It is important that you take the time to carefully research and plan an effective program.

Here are 6 questions to consider when building an effective internship program.

1. Why are we creating an internship program?
Just like any new venture, establishing definitive and measurable goals is one of the most important factors. It goes without saying that an internship program without a purpose is destined for trouble. So before you put pen to paper, think about the following:

  • What do you hope to get out of the program?
  • What will the interns get out of the program?
  • What will the interns learn during the internship period?
  • Are you interested in converting your interns into new employees?
  • Are you looking for extra help for a project?
  • Will the team have sufficient time to mentor and guide the interns?

2. What is the scope of the program?
Even though a lot of work will go into your internship program, you can save time and energy by figuring out certain logistics in advance:

  • When would the program ideally start and end?
  • How many hours a week will the intern work?
  • What are the intern's roles & responsibilities?
  • Will the intern get paid? How much?*
  • What other forms of compensation will be offered? (software training, network events, etc.)
  • Who will manage/mentor the intern?

*HRi Disclaimer: Unpaid internships have become controversial (most notably Fox Searchlight's Black Swan intern debacle). Our non-legal advice – if you feel interns aren't worth the money or at least imparting some of your hard won wisdom to the students, then the program is likely to do more harm than good.

3. Where are you going to find your interns?
An internship program is only as good as the interns themselves; a bad intern sucks up as much time and money as a bad hire. Therefore, it's essential to recruit top quality candidates. And yes, finding good interns can be just as hard and time consuming as finding a good employee – mostly because that's exactly what they are. Look to these resources to help make your life easier:

  • Connect with campus career centers
  • Get to know on-campus internship coordinators
  • Engage in social networking sites
  • Ask for referrals from existing interns, employees, and your network
  • Leverage your careers page/website

4. What are you going to offer your interns?
You don't expect new employees to be up to speed immediately, so why would you expect your interns to hit the ground running? If you are trying to attract great students and keep them interested in your company during and after the internship – treat them like new employees (have I said that before?).

Have them go through an orientation/onboarding process during which they meet the full staff and understand what everyone's role is in the company. Welcome them to your organization – they are overwhelmed as it is. Going back to Question 1, think about how you are going to support your interns and the different opportunities you can provide them.

  • Brown bag lunches with key executives
  • Participation in meetings, conferences, and events
  • Teach them industry specific software, such as Salesforce, WordPress, Constant Contact, Microsoft Outlook, etc.
  • Pair them with an appropriate mentor
  • Encourage creativity and new ideas
  • Host fun events, such as attending a baseball game, having a volunteer day with a local charity, or organizing a kickball team

5. Will you provide feedback to your interns?
Just like full-time employees (seriously?! broken record alert!), interns need structure. They need a dedicated mentor and continuous feedback in order to learn and grow throughout the program. Establish performance metrics, hold regular check-ins and reviews on the projects they are responsible for. And most importantly, do not focus on what they are doing "wrong." Instead, give constructive criticism and even praise based on their performance – your feedback is priceless in helping them grown into young professionals. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Make it specific
  • Encourage two-way communication
  • Provide feedback immediately
  • Make it positive

6. How will you evaluate the effectiveness of your program?
Don't take it personally, but you will need to tweak your internship program – especially if this is your first rodeo. Find out if the internship is truly meeting the needs of your organization. Ask a variety of people in your internship program, such as mentors, supervisors, and other employees about their experience with the program:

  • How beneficial was it to the department to have an internship program?
  • What would you change about the program for next time?
  • Did the interns receive timely feedback throughout the process? If no, why not?

Additionally, consider how your program is meeting your intern's needs. Create an "exit survey" for the interns to complete to determine strengths and weaknesses of the program, including:

  • Did you receive timely feedback throughout your internship?
  • What new skills did you learn while working here?
  • Was the amount of supervision provided during your internship adequate?
  • Did you receive proper training/orientation before beginning your internship?
  • Did you feel this internship was a beneficial learning experience?
  • Would you work for this organization again?
  • Would you recommend this organization to other students?

Once the program has been evaluated by employees and interns, take a close look at the feedback to determine any necessary changes to make.

A strong internship program can help shape the future growth of your company, and when leveraged successfully, your prior interns can become integral members of your team. Just remember that every successful internship program begins with a thoughtful plan regarding the goals and logistics of the program before you start recruiting.


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Guest January 22 2018