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Internship Programs Help Small Companies Find Employees

Creative thinking and careful planning help attract future workers.

​It’s hard to believe a town of 14,082 people an hour’s drive from Wichita, Kan., the nearest big city, would be a natural draw for aspiring young accountants. 

But that’s exactly what’s happened in McPherson, Kan., thanks to an 85-employee public accounting firm’s internship program. This year, the company has roughly one intern for every five employees.

Leaders at fast-growing Swindoll, Janzen, Hawk & Loyd (SJHL) are doubling down on internships as a way to grow their talent pipeline, cement relationships with local colleges, and boost the geographic and economic diversity of their staff. And so far, they have an impressive track record.

The company has attracted interns from Japan, Africa and Russia and has watched former interns soar in their post-graduation careers. But perhaps the greatest testament to the program’s success is that some participants stay long enough to take on full-time leadership roles.

“Two of our current partners were interns for us,” says Tamie Prieb, SHRM-CP, SJHL’s marketing and HR manager.

Transitioning stellar interns into star employees is especially useful in today’s tight hiring market. Many employers are struggling to find skilled labor, and while the rate of people quitting their jobs has slowed, it’s still sky-high. In August 2022, 4.2 million people left their jobs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. That compares to 3.5 million per month just prior to the pandemic.

In 2020, the public health crisis caused more than half of employers to cancel their internship programs, according to a survey by Glassdoor. Now, more than two years later, internships are making a comeback. When queried earlier this year, 200 large companies said they were planning to boost their intern hiring by an average of 22.6 percent in 2022, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE’s) 2022 Internship & Co-op Survey Report. Internships can be an especially important resource for smaller companies that feel the pinch of staff shortages even more acutely than larger organizations do. 

Yet smaller businesses can face obstacles to attracting interns. After all, they don’t have the huge marketing budgets of the bigger guys. They also might lack the bandwidth to run an internship program. But in most cases, it’s worth trying to overcome these challenges to get a program going. 

“Small businesses may be surprised that they can gain a great relationship, hire their next employee and change the trajectory of their business with interns,” says Stefanie B. Lomax, SHRM-CP, president and CEO of strategy at HRPro4You in Laurel, Md. “It’s a great way to grow.”

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Build a Framework

To get a successful internship program up and running, employers should first focus on two things: enabling slow, smart growth that gives companies time to train their interns, and putting a support system in place before the first intern walks through the door.

Interns should be treated like any other new employee, which means they should take part in the onboarding process. That way, they can learn the basics, such as how to access the company’s network and use their equipment, says Latha Ramesh, vice president of talent and culture at NetImpact Strategies Inc., a 300-employee IT services and consulting company headquartered in Falls Church, Va. 

Because this might be an intern’s first office job, it’s a good idea to be thorough, Ramesh advises. 

“So many of the processes and benefits are new and require explaining,” she says.

It’s also important to designate a point person—or point people—to officially oversee the internship program. One mistake SJHL made early on was assuming that team members would ask interns directly to help with tasks when needed. That didn’t happen.

“Everyone had access to the interns, but they didn’t grab them,” Prieb says. 

Once the leadership team realized it needed to have a formal process in place for assigning work to the interns, it assigned a staff member to be responsible for recruiting interns and overseeing the program. She matches each intern to one SJHL manager who assigns the intern work and takes charge of the intern’s development. That match is based on an intern’s skill set, interests and personality, as well as the needs of each department or manager.interns2.png

SJHL also now pairs each intern with an onboarding “buddy”—an employee who doesn’t assign them work. The idea is that after the two establish a connection, interns will feel comfortable asking their buddy small but important questions, such as how to fill out their time sheet or request a trash can for their workspace—two real-life examples Prieb shared. 

Depending on how many interns a company has, and the size of the staff, it’s also critical to not overburden any one employee with program oversight, says John Bates, SHRM-CP, talent supervisor for INTRUST Bank, based in Wichita, Kan. He recommends appointing several team members to take ownership of different aspects of the internship program. 

For example, recruiters can partner with hiring managers to work on intern selection. And internal marketers can help with recruiting tools and external communication about the program. It’s also important to choose managers who have previously shown an interest in mentoring and career development coaching to work with the interns, Ramesh says. 

Be Creative

To compete against companies with bigger marketing budgets, more name recognition and potentially more-attractive locations, smaller companies need to be flexible and creative with their internship outreach.

At SJHL, that has meant thinking younger. While most companies target college juniors and seniors for internships, the company expanded its outreach to include college freshmen and sophomores and sometimes high school students. 

Being flexible with timing can also pay off. Few accounting firms look for interns over the summer months, so focusing its attention on its summer internship program gives SJHL a chance to snap up young talent sooner and train them ahead of the busy accounting season.

“Even if they can’t help us during that busy season, you keep in contact with them,” Prieb says. “Maybe they’ll think of you later.” 

Colleges can be powerful internship partners. In addition to having a steady supply of young talent, they’re eager to place their students in quality internships. Forging partnerships with colleges can be done in many ways. 

NetImpact Strategies, for example, has relationships with university recruiting partners both near and far from its office. The company also posts internship opportunities on Handshake, an internship and entry-level-job recruiting app used by many college students and schools. Meanwhile, SJHL employees often volunteer to help local college students with mock interview training. One staff member even taught at a local college for an entire semester and then donated her stipend back to the school. 

“Treat the college like you’re building a client,” Prieb says.

Companies should also boast about what sets them apart from competitors. SJHL, for example, includes a mentorship program as a value-add to its internship program. In addition, each intern walks away with professional headshots. 

Highlighting the specific upsides of interning at a smaller organization is also a good idea, especially since many students intentionally seek out such opportunities, Prieb says.

“A true benefit of interning with a small business is you get to see more,” she says. “You may get to do outsourced accounting … [and] work with a client. If you go to a big company, you’re in a very specific department and don’t get the full grasp of everything else.”


Remote Internships: The Pros and Cons
The pandemic prompted some companies to transform their internship programs to virtual experiences—and there are advantages and disadvantages to doing so.

One of the big upsides of remote internships, especially for smaller employers, is a wider and more diverse pool of candidates to draw from. For students, eliminating the need to relocate can make an internship financially feasible. Otherwise, the expenses can be a sticking point, since about half of employers don’t offer relocation assistance to interns, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE’s) 2022 Internship & Co-op Survey Report. And an intern’s pay or stipend often doesn’t come close to covering living expenses in costly cities. 

Still, only 2.2 percent of employers surveyed earlier this year said they planned to offer fully virtual internships in 2022, NACE reported. Instead, nearly half (46.8 percent) planned on offering hybrid internships that blend virtual and in-person experiences. 

Fully virtual internships certainly aren’t for everyone. Research from Glassdoor found that 70 percent of students with remote internships in 2021 didn’t enjoy the experience. Many said they found it tough to communicate and connect with their employers, which is why it takes a lot of planning to make a remote internship program work. 

Latha Ramesh, vice president of talent and culture at NetImpact Strategies Inc., an IT services and consulting company based in Falls Church, Va., has worked with both hybrid and remote interns. To ensure that interns get the most from a remote or hybrid program, she recommends that companies:

  • Require participants to keep cameras on during online meetings so they can see each other.
  • Include remote interns in social events, whether in person or online. 
  • Schedule regular meetings to check on interns’ progress and answer questions.

At accounting firm Swindoll, Janzen, Hawk & Loyd, based in McPherson, Kan., business leaders decided that a fully remote internship isn’t ideal. Some of their interns are onsite for their entire internship, while others’ work locations vary depending on the season. 

“What really works for us in this small town is to have interns start in the summer in person, and then we set them up to work remotely for us starting in the fall,” says Tamie Prieb, SHRM-CP, the firm’s marketing and HR manager. 

That arrangement offers the best of both worlds. The company can train and connect with its interns in person, but by offering a remote portion of the internship, it’s able to hang on to more of its interns in the fall. —J.T.

Offer Meaningful Work

Before interns walk in the door, companies should have a plan outlining their work assignments and how they will be exposed to different aspects of the business. Be sure to give them “real” work, not work that feels like an afterthought. Also, involve them in staff and client meetings.

At INTRUST Bank, many managers assign interns a capstone project that they work on for the length of their internship. 

“The project gives them real-world experience researching and developing a recommendation that is then presented to their management team at the end of the program,” Bates says. “And it provides an excellent resume and portfolio boost.”

Not every task or project an intern works on needs to be high-level, though. Filing paperwork or doing data entry is just fine from time to time, Lomax says. But even then, companies need to explain to interns why the work is important.Screen Shot 2022-11-30 at 82732 AM.png

“If they’re working on documents that need to be filed or organized, what are the documents for? Why do those specific documents exist, and how are they used in the business?” Lomax says. “Creating a more meaningful experience helps put the work they’re doing in context and provides them with a better opportunity to ask questions and understand the business need for what they’re there to do.”

While companies don’t have to ensure that every second of an intern’s day is planned out—after all, occasional slow times are part of the real working world—it’s important to identify work that can be done when there’s a lull. SJHL created an online spreadsheet where managers can list lower-priority projects, Prieb says, so interns looking for something to do can scroll through and grab something. 

“It’s OK to think through projects for interns that are due at a later date,” she says. “Your nice-to-have project is great for an intern.”

At the end of the day, the more opportunities an intern has for development and networking, the better. 

“If you offer internships where interns don’t know what they will do from day to day, are only given menial tasks to do or end up fending for themselves, no one wins and top talent will avoid your program,” Bates says.

Gather Feedback

A successful internship program is one that benefits both the company and the interns. Small businesses can use interns to augment their staff and make connections with talented potential employees. Ideally, interns walk away with a “better understanding of their chosen career path options, industry connections and knowing what it’s like to work in a professional environment,” Bates says.

To continue to improve the program, get feedback from interns, managers, and even recruiters or college partners. Poll managers and interns about whether the time and energy they invested in the program was worth it, Bates advises. What was done well? What could be done better? As the internship comes to an end, ask managers what they see as the next step.

“Do they plan to extend the internship? Make a job offer? Consider the intern for a future role?” he says.

Calculating how many eligible interns were hired as full-time employees is a common method used by HR professionals to prove a program’s benefits to business leaders. In 2021, the average conversion rate for interns was 51.8 percent, according to NACE. To determine the conversion rate, divide the number of acceptances by the number of eligible interns (those graduating and looking for full-time work) and multiply by 100.

Businesses that find they rarely want to hire their interns, or that have interns who rarely accept their job offers, likely have a problem.

It’s also smart to stay in touch with former interns as a way to encourage them to return. SJHL sends care packages to current and former interns during their college midterm exams. This personal approach can set small businesses apart and help them compete for interns and employees. 

At the same time, even if an intern doesn’t wind up eventually working for the organization, an internship program can still be a boon for a company of any size.

“At the very least, you are helping support early talent in your community,” Bates says. “And if you do it right, you’re creating advocates at universities and in the community about your company and your internship program.”    

Jennifer Thomas is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Images from Shutterstock