Quick Studies

By Jean Thilmany May 1, 2007

Train interns their first day on the job—and every day thereafter—to make them better employees.

Katie Willoughby spent the first four weeks of her internship last summer in Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards Inc.’s marketing department accompanying her boss from one meeting to the next and gathering background information for her data analysis project. She loved every minute of it.

Janell Rodriguez, a 2005 engineering intern at National Instruments in Austin, Texas, was able to field complex customer questions on the workings of her company’s data acquisition technology after spending two weeks learning the ins and outs of the intricate hardware. She spent another three days getting the hang of her company’s phone system and learning how to best answer callers’ questions by asking her own pointed questions.

In Salem, Mass., Daiana Rosario spent her first day as a Peabody Essex Museum 2003 summer intern at an orientation conducted by her future colleagues in the human resource department. Before interning in the museum’s human resource department, Rosario barely knew what HR does. After interning, she decided to make HR her major.

These interns were able to gain valuable work experience and make meaningful contributions in a short amount of time because the companies provided them with a thorough orientation. In fact, companies that make the best use of student interns continue to train them long after orientation ends, and often as long as the internship lasts, says Matthew Zinman, president of Z University, a workforce readiness company in Newtown, Pa., that specializes in interns.

“It’s so critical to set the tone for the internship,” says Zinman. “You’re bringing students in and acclimating them right away.”

The type of training interns receive depends on the goals each employer has for its internship program, Zinman says.

Setting Expectations

The companies with the most successful internship programs treat interns as actual employees rather than summer-term gofers, giving them significant responsibilities related to their field of study. These organizations also work to orient interns to the workplace, Zinman says. Sure, interns need to know how to work with the software they’ll be using, but they also need to understand the ins and outs of their department and the overall mission of the company. And they need to get a good feel for the projects they’ll be undertaking and know where to take their questions.

Providing interns with an appropriate level of training is important at Deutsche Bank, says Kristina Peters, global head of graduate recruiting at the bank in New York.

“We can offer them an addition to what they’re learning at their universities by rounding out their education with real-world training and give them additional education they might not receive in school,” she says.

Companies like Deutsche Bank, Peabody Essex Museum, Hallmark, IBM and National Instruments see the entire internship as an extended training program. If successful, the training rewards both the intern and the employer.

For instance, a summer intern at Hallmark who meets project goals and makes a successful presentation about that project can generally be assured of a job offer, says Dawn Harp, the company’s special project talent acquisitions and placement manager. About 75 percent of the company’s interns receive—and accept—full-time job offers, Harp says.

That’s what happened to Willoughby. She will begin work as an official Hallmark employee after she earns a marketing degree from the University of Kansas this spring.

Rosario, the Peabody Essex Museum intern who changed her major to HR, now works for the museum full time. ›

An Exhibit Of Training Savvy

At the Peabody Essex Museum, about 200 high-school and 400 college students work as interns each school semester, says Nancy Hammer, director of HR. Interns attend a two-part orientation session their first days on the job. During the first three-hour session, Hammer talks about the museum’s dress code—which varies depending on where the intern works.

Next, students learn about what they can expect when working in a professional environment. Presenter Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, coordinator of the federally funded Museum Action Corps Program at Peabody, keeps in mind that many students have never worked, so they need a crash course in business conduct.

“I talk about how to advocate for yourself, how to talk to your manager, what the culture of an organization means and how that’s conveyed,” Ubiera-Minaya says.

Training also is tied to the work the intern will perform.

“If they’ll be working with equipment or computers, they get an orientation about that,” Hammer says. “Departments like guest services have very specific training. They go over the typical questions they get asked, and [they] learn who to call for help.”

Department supervisors take turns talking to interns during two-hour weekly meetings held throughout the semester. The managers tell interns about the day-to-day work of their own jobs and discuss their career progressions.

In addition to their departmental work, all interns also spend time working on a special project, Ubiera-Minaya says. In 2004, for example, students made a documentary film about Salem’s Point neighborhood, where many of the students live and where the museum is located. The film is still shown in local theaters.

Intern Training at Big Blue

While Peabody begins orienting its interns on day one, some companies begin feeding their interns information before they even arrive.

For example, after Matt Davis accepted an internship with IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., for the summer of 2006, his project manager, Eishay Smith, immediately sent him a packet of information that outlined what he’d be doing over the summer. His team worked on finding a way for medical applications to communicate via open source software.

Summer interns in IBM’s Extreme Blue program work in four-person project teams made up of three software engineering students and one first-year MBA student, says program manager Veronica Woody, who works at Almaden.

Project managers “become the mentors” who teach interns what they need to know, says Davis. “They explain what you need to do and also talk about technical stuff, like the specific software you’ll be using.”

In addition, interns receive informal mentoring from people outside their project team. Two or three times a week, interns sit down with research fellows and highly placed IBM technical staffers who talk about their area’s business strategy and the way their own career evolved.

Interns also get weekly professional development training throughout the summer on subjects like how best to give a PowerPoint presentation or how to communicate with their boss.

At summer’s end, interns make a full-blown presentation about their research projects to senior executives at IBM’s Armonk, N.Y., headquarters.

“Our premise is those who communicate the best are more successful in the corporate world no matter how smart or inventive they are,” Woody says. “The communications training helps them when they interview for jobs.”

Davis’ presentation went well enough that, after returning to the University of Oklahoma to earn a master’s degree in computer science, he now works at Almaden as a software engineer.

Broadening Interns’ Experience

Willoughby’s internship at Hallmark also culminated in a presentation to management. After spending three months analyzing market data on Hallmark’s products, she presented her findings and suggested tactics to increase sales to an audience made up of managers and fellow interns.

But before starting her data analysis work, Willoughby first had to be trained as to how the marketing department worked. So she became a shadow. She followed her manager to each meeting—meetings with product-line teams, with a licensing group, with the creative people.

“It was important to see how creative, marketing and inventory teams worked together and to see how several departments come together as a team to work on one product line,” Willoughby says. “Working with the manager was vital in terms of training. I’d learn things when we were in the meeting and then afterward he’d say, ‘What kind of questions do you have for me? Is there anything you didn’t understand or you want to learn about?’ ”

Willoughby admits that it would have been easy to become so mired in her marketing project that she became isolated from other departments. “It can be hard to get a view of other opportunities because you’re working day in and day out on the same project in the same department,” she says.

But Hallmark’s holistic approach to training interns prevented this from happening. Willoughby was paired with a mentor who worked in the card company’s innovations department and with whom she met regularly to discuss, among other things, her professional development.

In addition, Hallmark interns are encouraged to set up 30-minute coffee dates with 50 employees throughout their three-month internship. Willoughby took advantage of those meetings to learn about employees’ jobs and career paths, and to better understand Hallmark’s business structure. She picked up some networking skills and contacts to boot.

Training Comes First

Deutsche Bank also provides cross-departmental training that lasts the duration of the summer internship—but its orientation begins with classroom instruction. Interns spend their first two or three days—depending on department—in classes learning to use the tools they will need in their job.

Peters is careful to restrict the lesson time to a few days. “We’re aware they just left a campus where they’ve been in a classroom all day. They want to get going with the job,” she says.

After the initial orientation sessions, Deutsche Bank interns attend weekly half-day workshops throughout the summer that are intended to introduce them to different aspects of the bank’s operations.

Although intern training programs differ depending on organizations’ goals, Zinman says companies with the most successful programs focus on creating learning opportunities. HR professionals and intern coordinators at these companies know that, for a successful internship program, training comes first, he says.

Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn.

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


The SHRM Member Discounts program provides member-only access to discounts on products and services you can apply to your life and career, and share with your company.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect