Must-Have: An HR Internship

A well-designed internship program can meet company needs and develop HR talent.

By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2012
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May  CoverIn the summer of 2010, Brittany Flack had just graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in HR management and started interning for the talent acquisition group of Chrysler Group LLC at its Auburn Hills, Mich., headquarters.

"It was a meaningful work experience, and it made me want to work here after my internship," says Flack, who helped with onboarding new employees, conducting background screening and providing new-hire orientation. Fortunately, Flack got the chance to do just that: She was offered a full-time position with the university relations group.

In 2011, Chrysler hosted 20 summer HR interns at headquarters and at a manufacturing facility in Detroit as part of its internship program. Chrysler pays the interns a salary and, for those who are not local, a housing stipend. The company hosts several all-intern group activities throughout the summer.

"We give the intern a real-world experience," says Georgette Borrego Dulworth, director of talent acquisition and diversity at Chrysler. "It's an opportunity for the company to evaluate the intern and the intern to evaluate the company. There aren't any surprises" for either if the intern is hired full time.

The biggest advantage to the company is the fresh perspective that comes with any new employee, according to Dulworth.

Glenn Shagena, director of the HR group for manufacturing at Chrysler, names another advantage: winning future buyers. "We get them into the styling dome to peek at the cars we're considering bringing to market to gauge their reactions. If you can get them in one of our vehicles in their early 20s, they will be a customer for life," Shagena says.

Chrysler is part of a growing list of companies that offer HR internships to undergraduate and graduate students. These experiences provide students with HR work experience; small salaries, college credit or both; and networking opportunities. Companies gain a powerful recruiting tool, new perspectives, positive branding and a boost to employee morale.

"You can interview someone, look at their resume and make an assessment in a couple of hours. But with interns, you have them for a couple of months. You invest in students," Dulworth says.

The Logistics

HRinternships differ with regard to time frame, focus and scope, as well as whether students receive pay or college credit. Some examples:

Seasons and durationsPrograms may be year-round part-time internships or six-week stints during students' winter breaks called "winterships." The most common arrangement: full-time, eight- to 12-week summer sessions. Some companies have flexible start dates based on students' schedules, while others set a date for all interns to begin together.

One specialty or many. Zimmerman Advertising, a 1,100-employee agency in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has had an internship program for many years, but it introduced an HR component four years ago. "HR interns spend two to three weeks on each section—recruitment, employee relations, performance management, compensation and benefits, and budget management," explains Carmen Marston, executive vice president and director of HR.

Creating an HR Internship Program

HR professionals at companies with internship programs say the benefits far outweigh the investments of time, money and effort. They count the following among the rewards:

Powerful recruitment tool. Internships are "one of the most phenomenal recruiting mechanisms available," says Jeff Walls, a professor of business administration at Indiana Tech. "When the intern graduates, the company has the opportunity to hire a person it has already trained and gotten to know."

Robin Richards, CEO of Internships.com., says seven of 10 internships result in a job offer.

Decreased turnover. Internships decrease turnover because interns know what to expect. "The HR interns we have in our manufacturing facilities experience exactly what it's like to go to work there," says Glenn Shagena, director of the HR group for manufacturing at Chrysler.

Positive branding. News of interns' experiences travels fast and can bolster a company's reputation. Internships are "excellent for branding," says Richards, who notes that the average student has 500 Facebook friends.

Adds former intern Rebecca Stewart, "Interns will always brag about the internship on Facebook, so it's a great way to advertise their companies."

Altruism. Supervising interns becomes a way of giving back to the HR profession. "Be a mentor," Walls urges. "What you get back from that experience is indescribable."

Improved employee morale. "Interns are great for morale because everyone is doing the right thing to help this young person," Richards says.

Carolyn A. Lekan, SPHR, director of headquarters HR for The Sherwin-Williams Co., says interns "bring a ton of energy. They bring different perspectives and are technically savvy."

New ideas. "You get a continuous stream of good ideas," says Timothy Vaughan, a business professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "It's a breath of fresh air."

"Interns are coming out of college with the latest and greatest information in the field," adds Megan Potts, PHR, president-elect for Williamson County Human Resources Management Association, and an HR professional at Wag-A-Bag.

Social networking know-how. Richards says interns can show HR professionals better ways to use social media, and are assets for reviewing social media practices and helping HR leaders understand how to extend their reach and advocacy.

—Kathryn Tyler


Some chapters of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) are developing internship programs with rotational assignments. For instance, the South Central Indiana HR Association in Bloomington has developed the Intern Institute to connect HR interns to area employers. The program has grown from a single employer to five. Interns in the program work 200 unpaid hours at two to four companies to satisfy a graduation requirement.

Typically, students intern with one company, explains Linda Dausend, the chapter's past president and a consultant for FlashPoint, an HR consulting firm in Indianapolis. But "When you intern with different types of companies, you have the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of businesses, industries and experiences."

Volunteers with the Intern Institute work with employers to guarantee that HR students are doing "real work" that advances the students' understanding of HR. "Students might analyze a benefits program and make recommendations or conduct an employee engagement survey," Dausend says.

The HR department at Sunrise Greetings in Bloomington, Ind., an independent subsidiary of Hallmark Cards with 110 employees, is planning to participate in the Intern Institute program this summer. "We're looking at having the intern help with some leadership development and talent training projects," says Amy Slaughter, vice president of customer and employee support services.

Stand-alone or companywide. TD Bank's paid internships provide opportunities in all areas of the organization, including HR. In 2009, the bank had 30 interns, and "in 2012, we are set to have 125," says Michael Luisi, the undergraduate program lead. The 10-week summer program starts with a two-day orientation in Mount Laurel, N.J., for all interns. "It gives them a chance to interact with other interns from different areas, and they learn more about the banking industry," Luisi says.

Brittany Bernard, a TD Bank intern in summer 2010, was hired at the end of the program as a public relations associate. TD Bank's communications department comes under its HR function. "I had a few internships [elsewhere] and I got work experience, but they didn't offer the opportunity to grow professionally and personally. TD Bank offers extra things outside of the workday, like classes and lunch with executives."

Interns at The Sherwin-Williams Co., with 32,000 employees globally, have opportunities to network with other interns and executives, take training classes, and participate in community activities, such as events at Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

"Interns are a critical component of what we do. They are given real work to do, and managers rely on them," says Carolyn A. Lekan, SPHR, who started as an intern 

13 years ago and is now Sherwin-Williams' director of headquarters HR in Cleveland. Interns help with recruiting, placing job postings, screening applicants via phone, scheduling interviews, analyzing data, assisting in creating training materials and preparing for orientation activities, she says.

In 2011, the company had seven interns in different HR functions at its headquarters and hired one. Sherwin-Williams also offers year-round part-time internships to college students at its offices across the U.S.

Graduation requirements.Megan Potts, PHR, was required to have 12 credit hours of internship experience to earn her bachelor's degree in HR development from Texas A&M University.

Had that requirement not existed, she would have completed an internship anyway. "I knew there was no way I'd get my foot in the door without one," says Potts, now president-elect for Williamson County Human Resources Management Association, a SHRM chapter, and an HR professional at Wag-A-Bag, a convenience store group in Round Rock, Texas.

Potts had a paid internship with an Austin, Texas, credit union, where she processed payroll, managed sick and vacation time balances, screened job candidates, and led new-hire orientation. "The experience I gained in those few months was what I needed to propel me to the next level in my career," she says.

According to SHRM's 2011 State of HR Education Final Report, 9 percent of undergraduate HR students are required to complete internships to graduate, but 40 percent actually complete them. The data show that even when they are not required, students see the value of internships.

"The vast majority of entry-level HR positions require at least six months to a year of experience. The argument for taking an internship is a good one, especially in a tough job market," says Nancy Woolever, SPHR, director of academic initiatives at SHRM.

Costs and Compliance

If interns receive college credit, employers do not have to pay them a salary. However, guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Labor in April 2010 relating to the Fair Labor Standards Act made it much more difficult for employers to offer unpaid internships. Many colleges, including the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, will not allow students to take unpaid internships, even if they receive credit.

Robin Richards, chief executive officer of Internships.com, says about 28 percent of HR internships posted on the site are paid positions.

"You are HR. Do you really want to bring somebody in and not pay them? Is that the right message you want to send?" says Jeff Walls, professor of business administration at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne.

Most companies pay interns an hourly wage and overtime. Salaries vary, but the typical intern earns $10 to $15 per hour, Walls says.

In 2010, Kronos Inc., a workforce management consultancy headquartered in Chelmsford, Mass., began offering HR internships as part of a companywide program. In 2011, the company hosted 40 interns, including an HR generalist and a talent acquisition intern. "The program costs approximately $5,000 per intern, which includes salaries, materials, recruiting events and social events," says Dave Almeda, vice president of HR.

Companies may allot a line item in the budget to internships or may require departments to pay for interns individually. At TD Bank, each business area funds its own interns, Luisi says.

Some companies even provide benefits for interns. At Sherwin-Williams, interns get an hourly wage and are eligible for the 401(k) match, pension, use of the wellness center and other benefits.

At Santa Clara, Calif.-based technology company Intel, interns are eligible for medical benefits, bonuses, stock plan participation and relocation assistance. In 2011, Intel had 15 HR interns in the United States and 100 globally.

Program Structure

Rudy J. Sanchez, associate professor of management at California State University in Fresno, advises employers to carefully plan and structure internships. Spend time deciding what type of work interns will do, as well as what professional development activities and networking events they will be offered.

Define department needs. Interns need to know what they will be doing and what hours they can expect to work. "Create a job description," Walls recommends. "Evaluate it the same way as any other job. Give that intern the best exposure to what HR is about."

Potts says members of each department should clearly define what interns should achieve.

And Marcia Zaruba O'Connor, a consultant to West Pharmaceutical Services Inc., headquartered in Lionville, Pa., stresses the need for ongoing communication. "Have a planned agenda for them when they arrive. Strong interns possess a strong work ethic, and you need to be able to keep them busy constantly. Make sure they are creating value and are appreciated."

Pam Anderson, HR staffing account manager at Intel, reminds HR professionals to think strategically:"We used to bring interns in with a project in mind. Nowadays, we think of interns as a strategic pipeline for filling future roles in the organization, gaps that we have in HR."

Be clear about assignments and dead­linesMake sure interns' mentors "are committed to offering what you told the intern you were going to offer them," Marston says. For instance, at Zimmerman Advertising, where HR interns rotate through different specialties, "mentors within each department are responsible for communicating and managing the program. For every rotation, the mentor says, 'These are the objectives over the next couple of weeks.' Every time the intern moves to another division, the manager rates the intern," she explains.

Zimmerman HR interns are also responsible for a big project they work on throughout their internship. For instance, "Last year, an intern ran an I-9 compliance audit and made recommendations," says Jared Koesten, director of HR for the agency.

Rebecca Stewart, a virtual recruiter for Xerox Corp. in Tampa, began her HR career as a Zimmerman intern in 2010. "They asked me what I wanted to get out of the program, and I was most interested in the recruiting aspect. I jumped right into recruiting entry-level positions," Stewart says.

Assign a supervisor. When an internship doesn't work out well, it often stems from a lack of clarity about who is responsible for that intern, experts say. "Have a clear chain of command. The intern needs to know who they report to," says Timothy Vaughan, a business professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

At TD Bank, Luisi uses a formal evaluation process. "The interns set goals with their managers, and they track toward those goals. At the end of the summer, they have final reviews with their managers," he explains.

Decide on developmental training and activities. Rachel Dillinger, a former HR intern at West Pharmaceutical Services, says the company offered "lunch and learn" talks to teach interns about its products, as well as talks on topics such as personal investing, resume writing and how to compete in the job market.

The company began its Ambassador Internship program in 2010 and added an HR component in 2011. Typically, 15 to 23 students—including one in HR—participate in 10-week paid summer internships. Students may be eligible for living assistance stipends.

Dillinger assisted with three projects: calculating pensions, updating and compiling job descriptions, and investigating potential learning management software.

"I was able to pick up presentation skills. I became very detail-oriented when checking pension calculations. I sharpened my people skills through interfacing frequently with employees at all levels and branches, and with people at outside companies," Dillinger recalls.

Incorporate social elements. "Having fun while doing real work is what will keep the interns happy and motivated," Kronos' Almeda says. "We've held pizza lunches, ice cream socials with executives, lunch with the CEO, a minor league baseball game, a concert and a barbecue to make sure that the interns are having a great life experience, not just a great work experience."

Former Chrysler intern Flack recalls, "Beyond my work assignment, I had so many other opportunities to meet other interns and network with executives." Shagena says an outing to the proving grounds, where interns drive vehicles on the test track, has become a popular activity.

Assign final presentations. At a closing summer event, Chrysler's HR interns make oral presentations to the vice president of human resources.

At Zimmerman Advertising, interns complete a weekly two-page summary describing what they've learned. They are also responsible for a big project they own "from beginning to end," Marston says.

At the end of the summer, interns at The Sherwin-Williams Co. create displays to showcase what they have learned.

Kronos interns give 15- to 20-minute presentations that answer the following questions:

What did you learn during the program?

What was the value to the organization of the projects you worked on?

How will you apply your work in the real world?

Such presentations ensure that managers provide interns with projects that address these expectations, Almeda says.

Learning by Doing

While interns gain valuable experience, they also help an organization's HR function accomplish tasks.

Lacey Burton, an undergraduate student at the University of Phoenix with a concentration in HR management and sustainable enterprise management, has two internships: one with a SHRM chapter, the Williamson County Human Resources Management Association, and another with Seton Healthcare Family, a not-for-profit health care provider in Round Rock, Texas.

"I have created and maintained social media websites for the association and helped them maintain their website. I am a co-editor of the monthly newsletter," says Burton. She also helps the health care provider's talent acquisition team post open positions, research ways to use the Internet for recruiting, and leverage social and professional networking sites to source candidates.

Although neither internship is paid and Burton doesn't receive college credit, she says, "I am gaining experience and knowledge of the HR workplace environment, networking, and getting my name out there. So when it's time for a job, I will be ready."

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