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Internship Program Dividends

Grooming young talent can yield results for employers and participants.

HR Magazine, January 2006Students may think of internships as a way to acquire professional skills while earning some money in the process. But employers often view their student interns as potential new hires who are worth cultivating, and these organizations see their internship program as a way to create a cadre of young workers who already know the company.

“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. “The market for campus talent has gotten much more competitive.”

In fact, a student recruitment report released in July by WetFeet found that campus recruiting was more competitive in 2005. The average number of internship offers received by students at top-tier universities jumped by 18 percent for undergraduates and 11 percent for MBA students compared to 2004.

The research also found that students overwhelmingly view internships as critical to their career plans. Of the 2,653 students who responded to the WetFeet survey, 79 percent felt a good internship was essential to meeting their long-term career goals, up from 76 percent in 2004.

While internships give students an opportunity to learn valuable skills that often translate into full-time employment, they also provide employers with the perfect avenue to test a student’s contributions in the workplace. A well-run internship program also can deliver long-term rewards for a business: Many employers report higher retention rates among employees who began as interns.

Interns Wanted

Employers look for the best and brightest students in a variety of ways. In addition to attending college fairs and using campus career centers, some employers sponsor student groups, work with alumni associations and hire on-campus representatives to identify potential interns.

At Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., a consultancy based in McLean, Va., the company takes a targeted approach to its search for interns, 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 students majoring in technology and engineering fields, 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.

“What employers are looking for is someone with very raw experience,” says Julie Martin, manager of Booz Allen’s federal sector. “The overall goal is for them to be extremely open to learning tasks.”

In an effort to get interns up to speed quickly and ease their integration into the work environment, many companies provide training and orientation on issues such as the organization’s rules on dress, behavior, ethics and technology use.

The high value employers place on the work interns do is reflected in the fact that four out of five are paid for their efforts—often handsomely.

WetFeet’s study, managed by independent market research firm Q&A Research of Novato, Calif., found that the average salary offer for internships was $638 per week for undergraduates, with an average signing bonus of $302. For MBA students, it was $1,473 per week, with an average signing bonus of $693.

Booz Allen pays its interns between $11 and $18 an hour, depending on the student’s major and whether he or she is in the undergraduate program or part of the MBA internship pool. The company uses data from two surveys to gauge competitive compensation rates in the marketplace, while also taking into consideration cost-of-living expenses, Martin says.

Interns who are not paid—about 20 percent of all interns, according to WetFeet’s Pollock—usually earn college credit for their work.

Organizations that have unpaid interns, known as learners or trainees, 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.

“We encourage all our internship agencies to offer students scholarships or stipends,” says Arleen Marie Borysiewicz, the center’s senior vice president for external affairs.

Spell It Out

Companies that are the most successful in recruiting interns first do their homework by determining the goals they hope to achieve from their internship program, experts say. Some of the decisions the company must make include which area of the organization could benefit most from having additional staff, what organizational objectives—such as focusing on diversity or tackling a special project—can be furthered by the internship program, and what the intern is expected to accomplish.

“In the end, this spells out the internship job description, sets direction regarding the qualifications [employers] require from applicants, becomes the basis for a thorough interview process, and identifies the types of resources the organization must commit to ensure a successful internship experience for both student and employer,” says Borysiewicz.

The work of HR should include preparing available staff to serve as mentors, communicating with and guiding interns on what is expected of them, and making arrangements for physical considerations such as a workstation or computer network permissions, office supplies, and security access.

Lisa Jenkins, HR director for PostNewsweek Tech Media, a subsidiary of The Washington Post company, says it is paramount for companies to have clear goals for the intern, and for interns to have a clear understanding about what they would like to glean from the job.

“The experience and work should be productive for the intern and the company,” says Jenkins.

Getting Down to Business

For most organizations, long gone are the days when interns spent their summers cleaning file cabinets and fetching coffee for the boss. According to WetFeet’s July research report, once they are hired, interns are usually put to work alongside full-time staff professionals.

“From the research that we’ve done, it’s much less common for people to make photocopies over the summer,” Pollock says. “The era of just bringing people in to handle a little light extra work is a thing of the past.”

Borysiewicz says Washington Center staff conducts a series of on-site visits with interns and internship supervisors “to ensure students are getting substantial professional training, direction, supervision and mentorship.

“Our students receive credit for the internship, and they have to be able to prove the creditworthiness of the experience to their college campus sponsor at the end of the semester,” says Borysiewicz.

Making sure that the intern has adequate supervision, and that managers understand the demands of working with an intern, is a top priority.

“Nothing can be more frustrating for an intern than to be placed with an agency that offers less than adequate supervision by staff. Yes, they are smart young adults, but they are still college students and, for all their moxie, still need professional direction and mentorship,” says Borysiewicz.

Final Review

Organizations that fail to have a formal process to gather feedback about the intern’s experience—or to provide a thorough critique of the student’s work—risk leaving a negative impression that can linger long after the internship ends.

At the end of the program, the intern and the company should complete a survey about the experience, like an exit interview, Jenkins says.

Students receive a form at the conclusion of their internship with Booz Allen, and they are asked to assess the program and to outline the work they performed.

“It’s a fairly simple form, but it gets to the heart of what they did,” says Martin. Pollock says it’s important for employers to gather feedback on what works and what needs fine-tuning in order to improve internship programs each year. It also allows interns to feel appreciated for their unique perspective.

“It sends a message that companies care what their interns had to say about the experience,” Pollock explains.

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.

However, 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.


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