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Should You Create an Internship Program?

How a well-planned internship program can benefit your organization.

​Gone are the days of the stereotypical intern fetching coffee and picking up the boss’s dry cleaning. Today’s internship market is competitive, and high-caliber candidates aren’t looking for jobs making copies—they want real-world experience that will help them excel in their careers. Luckily for HR professionals, this means there’s a pool of highly motivated students eager to contribute to an organization’s goals.

Internship programs are generally attractive to employers because they offer a way to bring in fresh perspectives, create a pipeline for new hires and provide mentorship opportunities for existing employees. Research shows that former interns—even those who go on to work for other companies—stay longer at the company than employees who never had an internship.

Employers recognize the value of the programs: Intern hiring was expected to increase 2.6 percent in 2019 from the previous year, according to the 2019 Internship & Co-op Survey Report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

To attract quality candidates, internship programs must be well-planned. For many prospective candidates, this means the programs are engaging, provide real-world experience and deliver a paycheck, even if interns are paid just minimum wage.

“Treating interns from the outset as you would new employees is imperative,” says Sonia Mathai, chief human resources officer at Globality, a 200-employee sourcing platform headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif. “Onboarding and training is equally as important and supports the purpose and goal of these programs. Make interns matter. Prioritize them, give them regular feedback and expose their work.” The company has up to 10 interns at any given time in its year-round program.

Fortunately, fulfilling interns’ career needs and creating significant benefits for hiring organizations don’t need to be mutually exclusive. By providing well-rounded programs with meaningful work, companies gain positive contributions from interns while grooming candidates for a seamless transition into full-time jobs.

Globility interns Successful programs like those at Globality focus on treating interns as they would new employees.

Training Tomorrow’s Workers

The most straightforward reason for having an internship program is to create a new crop of employees for a company’s specific business needs. Internships can act as a trial run for employers and interns to discern whether they’re a good fit.

“Internship programs by default have a direct contribution to the talent pipeline,” says Tan Moorthy, executive vice president, head of U.S. delivery operations and global head of education, training and assessments for Infosys, a 230,000-employee IT consulting firm headquartered in Bengaluru, India. 

In 2019, for the second year in a row, the company’s paid international internship program was ranked the best overall program in the world by The Infosys Instep program had 250 interns from 35 countries last year, up from 130 interns the previous year. They work on real-time STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and business projects in digital technologies including artificial intelligence, “big data,” cloud computing and machine learning. The company strengthened the program last year by mapping mentors, buddies and internship coordinators to help its interns, who are graduate and postgraduate students.

A positive internship experience and a chance to be immersed in a company’s culture make it more likely that an intern will choose to work for a company down the line, Moorthy says.

For employers that are big enough or growing rapidly enough to require a steady stream of entry-level employees, an internship program can act as a formal screening process for possible new hires. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to share that intention with internship candidates from the start, says Stephanie Scott, campus recruiting manager at West Monroe Partners, a 1,500-person management consultancy headquartered in Chicago. The company plans to employ 120 interns in five offices in its next class.

“We never bring in more interns than we would have positions for full time,” Scott says. “During orientation, we’ll tell them, ‘We want you guys to walk away at the end of the summer with an offer to come back and join us full-time.’ We hope to convert everybody to a full-time employee.”

Internships can also help put unknown or underrepresented industries on students’ radars. 

‘Make interns matter. Prioritize them, give them regular feedback and expose their work.’
Sonia Mathai

Caregiver Inc., a Fort Worth, Texas-based company that provides services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, rolled out its first internship program with six interns in the summer of 2019, in part to expose young talent to this lesser-known sector of the health care industry.

When most students think of health care, “they only think of hospital systems, or they think of clinics and doctors’ offices,” says Dau Tucker, chief human resources officer at Caregiver, which has 3,900 employees.

Internships also offer a targeted way to increase company diversity—in age, discipline, experience level, gender, race and ethnicity. 

Assigning Real Work

Considering that one major goal of an internship program is to prepare interns for the rigors of the working world, it makes sense that the work they do should be real and not manufactured.

Caregiver’s six interns were placed in its finance, HR, mergers and acquisitions, and operations departments, where they were treated as full team members.

“Our functional leaders, the directors of those respective areas, actually designed the work,” Tucker says. “It was very important to me that it was meaningful work, that interns could take some of what they learned and apply some of their education to it as well. They were doing job duties of an actual position within the company.” 

Wanda Jackson, senior vice president of human resources at the National Urban League, a 100-employee civil rights nonprofit based in New York City, agrees that providing meaningful work is key.

“It’s always great to figure out something they can take back and say, ‘I interned there for eight weeks, and this is what I did,’ ” she says. 

Money Counts, Too

Another way of making interns feel valued is paying them, Jackson says. She discourages HR professionals from creating an internship program unless they have the budget to support it.

Many students can’t afford to go a summer without pay, which locks them out of professional experience at any employer that offers only unpaid internships. If companies are serious about fostering diverse workforces, paid internships can help ensure that students from a broad spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds will apply, she says.

“The students come for the experience, but college is so expensive,” Jackson says. “It’s not realistic to do something where people aren’t paid.” 

Wages aren’t just a perk for the interns—they also greatly expand the types of work that interns can do and decrease the bureaucratic hoops that employers need to jump through. 

Caregiver Interns

Caregiver Inc., which provides services for adults with disabilities, created an internship program in 2019 to expose college students to this lesser-known sector of the health care industry.

The criteria used by the U.S. Department of Labor to determine whether an intern is an employee entitled to compensation eased slightly in 2018 but still prevent for-profit employers from using unpaid interns to do the work of paid employees. 

For organizations that don’t have the budget for a paid program or that are just beginning to dip their toes into a formal internship program, there might be other options. 

Schools sometimes fill in where organizations can’t, with grants, scholarships or traditional salaries. This is especially helpful for the nonprofit sector, Jackson says, where discretionary budgets are tight. Her organization brings in 10 to 20 interns each year, depending on available funding. Some are paid by their school, she says.

Building Consensus

To ensure the success of internship programs, HR professionals need to get full buy-in from the rest of their organization. Expectations should be set regarding how interns will fit into the company processes and culture, and to whom they’ll be reporting. 

In addition to providing meaningful work, HR professionals and managers should ensure that the work environment is welcoming and that interns are treated as members of the team, Tucker says. 

A well-managed program with high-quality candidates can easily generate its own companywide buy-in, Scott says.

“For us, it’s really happened organically,” she says. “The interns are so young, they’re so energetic, they’re so enthusiastic, and it’s an exciting time for all of us to be around so many people who are eager to learn. Our interns have been so successful over the years that people are fighting to get interns on their projects because they end up being really great resources.”

A positive program reputation is one of the most powerful ways to perpetuate this accepting culture. 

“We have so many interns who have converted to full-time hires and are now leaders within the firm,” Scott says. 

Beyond team buy-in, HR professionals also need to get the support of executives, especially to secure the resources necessary to pull off a successful internship program. 

Organizations shouldn’t create an internship program just for the sake of having one, Mathai says. Instead, make the decision intentional at all levels of the organization.

“The most important factor in designing a program is commitment,” Mathai says. “Start at the top and treat internship programs as if you’re creating a new organization or business unit. Identify purpose, goals and objectives, and define success criteria. Be clear on who the key stakeholders are and what their roles are.” 

Measuring Success

To justify an internship program and keep it running for the long term, HR managers need to prove its worth. This means creating straightforward, consistent measurements of success. 

The metrics must be tailored to the organization and its goals: Is the point to generate new hires or to foster a positive image with candidates on college campuses? If the interns’ experience is the main focus, the feedback from their exit interviews will determine the path forward.

A traditional internship goal for growing companies is conversion rate. West Monroe Partners looks at how many interns are eligible for full-time offers and how many accept those offers. The company has converted 73 percent of its eligible interns to full-time employees over the last two to three years, Scott says.

In Caregiver’s case, Tucker was able to keep all six of her company’s first interns on the payroll as either full-time employees or, for those still finishing up school or unable to commit to a full-time schedule, as contractors.

“As we have assignments or projects, they all want us to call them back,” says Tucker, who says she’s encouraged by the results.

At the National Urban League, Jackson and her team took a different approach when defining objectives.  

Measuring Your Internship Program

“We’re not really trying to hire people out of the program—that’s not our goal,” she says. “Our goal is to give them an experience and expose them to the work of nonprofits in the U.S. economy.” 

Interns at the nonprofit participate in a variety of experiences, including networking events, travel and helping to plan an annual summer conference.

No matter how success is measured, internship programs won’t grow or improve without comprehensive, honest and constructive feedback from participants and managers. 

The Infosys InStep program includes a structured exit process during which interns are asked about their experience.

“They share their feedback on multiple program aspects like mentorship, project work satisfaction, cultural experience and company inclusivity,” Moorthy says. “This feedback mechanism leads to our own metrics, which help us quantify our success.”

Soliciting continuous feedback throughout the program is even better, allowing programs to be agile in serving the needs of the individual interns. 

“We had coffee catch-ups where we would bring in breakfast and solicit feedback,” Tucker says. 

By making an effort to keep interns happy, engaged, valued and challenged, HR professionals will make sure that they’re building a sustainable program that will benefit both their interns and their organizations. They may also boost their company image through previous interns’ word of mouth.

“When we have interns who are referring all of their friends and peers on campus, and we see that during fall recruiting, that tells me we had a really great summer,” Scott says. 

“What’s important is that the intern walks away feeling good about your company. We’ve had interns who haven’t gotten offers or who have declined offers, but they still refer us to their friends and talk about us positively. They’re an amazing advertising tool.”  

Kate Rockwood is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Amanda Hermans also contributed to this article.