Effective Internship Programs

Being an intern is a foundational professional and academic experience

By Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP July 21, 2022
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Effective Internship Programs

​Many of us started in the HR field as interns. Internships are foundational not only to professional experience, but also to academic experience. I was an industrial relations intern as an undergraduate student and had the unique pleasure of working with a variety of labor unions: reviewing and revising recently negotiated collective bargaining agreements, sitting in on grievance and arbitration meetings, working on a policy manual, and successfully completing an affirmative action plan. 

Successful internship programs can be the pipeline for future leadership development talent as well as for entry-level applicants. Here are a few tips for making such programs more effective.

  • Leadership support. To sell the idea of an internship program and gain support, communicate why internships should be set up and how a strategically aligned program will benefit the organization.
     
  • Local academic partnerships. Developing relationships is instrumental to building an internship program. Look for opportunities to partner with local colleges and institutions of higher education to understand their academic requirements. Create an apprentice program. Offer guest speakers at career-service events and in the classroom. Volunteer to mentor participants and conduct mock job interviews.
     
  • Onboarding and job descriptions. A new worker's first look at an organization will make or break any internship experience (or job!). Develop an onboarding program that aligns the intern's expectations with the needs of the organization. Prepare a job description, including projects the intern will work on and what needs to be accomplished throughout the experience. The last thing any intern wants to do all summer is file paperwork. Instead, engage them in meetings and hold them accountable for their work. I sat in on grievances and arbitrations only because I asked to do so; if your interns are not asking for certain experiences, ask for them.
     
  • Provide—and accept—evaluations. Provide open and timely feedback to the intern and, if applicable, to the academic institution. Many schools will ask for feedback and have forms in place for that purpose. You should also ask the intern and school to provide their evaluations so you can better understand how your program did, and whether and how it met their expectations. Another one of my internships ended with a presentation to senior leadership on what the interns accomplished over the summer—not a bad idea for every organization to incorporate.
     

Internship programs represent a wonderful way to recruit and engage future talent for positions throughout any organization. Develop a program that works for you and build a resource network of opportunities and partnerships. The SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge (SHRM BASK), the framework for SHRM certification, provides us with the knowledge, skills and resources to ensure we have foundational support to build strategically aligned internship programs. 

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting LLC, Elmira, N.Y. and McKinney, Texas; co-owner of Labor Love LLC; is an HR consultant, an adjunct professor, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and in human resources and industrial relations, and a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.


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