Use Internship Programs To Groom Strong Job Candidates

By Dawn Onley Mar 3, 2008

Students often think of internships as a way to acquire professional skills—and a way to pay their bills. But savvy managers view their internship programs as a way to create a cadre of potential new hires with pertinent experience.

"Interns are a pipeline of full-time talent," says Steve Pollock, president of WetFeet Inc., a San Francisco-based research and consulting organization that specializes in talent recruiting. In fact a student recruitment report released in July by WetFeet found that the average number of internship offers received by students at top-tier universities in 2005 jumped by 18 percent for undergraduates and 11 percent for MBAs, compared to 2004.

To kick your internship program into high gear, think beyond college fairs and campus career centers and consider sponsoring student groups, working with alumni associations and hiring on-campus representatives to identify potential interns. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., a consultancy based in McLean, Va., takes a targeted approach to its intern search, by holding a series of career fairs and recruiting interns from 13 colleges and universities up and down the Mid-Atlantic region. The firm, which mostly draws technology and engineering students, also finds some interns through an employee referral program. In the summer of 2005, Booz Allen had 175 interns, up by 10 from the previous summer. The company usually makes offers to about 35 percent of its graduating interns.

Companies that are the most successful in recruiting interns start by setting the goals they hope to achieve from their internship program, experts say. Some of the decisions the company must make include deciding which area of the organization could benefit most from having additional staff, what organizational objectives—such as diversity or tackling a special project—can be furthered by the internship program and what the intern is expected to accomplish. You'll also need to prepare available staff to serve as mentors, communicate with interns on what is expected of them and make arrangements for physical considerations, such as a workstation or computer network permissions, office supplies, and security access.

Most interns are usually put to work alongside full-time staff professionals. Making sure the intern has adequate supervision and that managers understand the demands of working with an intern are top priorities. In addition, training and orientation on issues such as the organization's rules on dress, behavior, ethics and technology use get interns up to speed quickly and ease their integration into the work environment. Equally important is a formal process to gather feedback about the intern's experience—and to provide a thorough critique of the student's work. At the end of the program, the intern and the company should complete a survey about the experience, like an exit interview. At Booz Allen, students receive a form at the conclusion of their internship in which they're asked to assess the program and to outline the work they performed.

The high value employers place on the work of interns is reflected in the fact that four out of five are paid for their efforts—often handsomely. WetFeet's study found the average salary offer for internships was $638 per week for undergraduates, with an average signing bonus of $302. This compares to a $1,473 average weekly salary for MBA students with an average signing bonus of $693.

Unpaid interns—about 20 percent of all interns, according to Pollock—typically earn college credit for their work. Organizations that have unpaid interns must adhere to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law that sets workplace standards on wage and overtime requirements, among other things. The Department of Labor has compiled a list of criteria to help employers determine whether a student intern is considered an employee within the meaning of the FLSA. In essence, the work being performed by an unpaid intern should be a part of the student's college curriculum and should primarily enhance the student's skill set in much the same way conducting college lab work does.

The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, an educational nonprofit that places student interns with thousands of organizations in government, business and the nonprofit sector in the Washington, D.C., area, enables students to earn up to a full semester of credit for their work.

While the rewards of a successful internship program can be great, not every temporary stint blossoms into a lasting relationship and, just as they do with regular employees, employers have to work at earning the stature of an employer of choice. Roughly 39 percent of all graduating seniors and 61 percent of MBA graduates received offers for full-time employment in 2005, usually from the companies where they worked as interns, according to the WetFeet study. But 51 percent of the students declined the offers, citing more often than not a better offer from another company. This suggests "either that students successfully parlayed their summer experience into a good resume builder, or that internship employers were not great at providing a compelling reason for their interns to convert," the WetFeet study found.

Dawn S. Onley is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

Terms of Use: © 2006 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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