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Meaningful Work Creates Meaningful Internships

Access to executives, projects and volunteerism draw interns to software company

A man and woman working on a machine in a factory.

It was Inbar Gam's first week as recruiting coordinator in the HR department at Adaptive Insights in Palo Alto, Calif. She excitedly texted friends she had interned with seven months earlier at the company. She couldn't wait to tell them that the set of values they had created for the company had become part of Adaptive's onboarding materials.

"The work that we had done had really made a difference," Gam said.

That cross-functional project exemplified one of the things students look for in a robust internship, according to the San Diego State University Employer Internship Toolkit: meaningful projects related to their professional development.

Gam was among 23 students chosen for Adaptive's three-month internship program. Four thousand students had applied.  

Adaptive's internship program hasn't always been so competitive—or meaningful. The software service company in Silicon Valley attracted only 10-20 intern applicants annually before it retooled its program to have a multilevel approach for students working in the company's legal, finance, HR, product development, sales and marketing departments, according to Amy Reichanadter, the company's chief people officer.

"I felt like there was a better way to give [the company and interns] a much more meaningful experience," she told SHRM Online. She also wanted, she said, "to figure out what the genius is from this generation and get energized" by it. 

The company went to its interns to find out how to improve their experience.

The result was a program at the 500-employee company that includes group projects, educational seminars, and team outings and events. Seminars have included workshops on creating a personal brand, building a professional network, negotiating a salary and writing a resume.

Adding educational components and the opportunity to work with company executives "has been a real differentiator for us" in drawing top students to the program, Reichanadter said.   

Group projects have entailed looking at merger and acquisition opportunities for the company, as well as rewriting Adaptive's values. Projects conclude with presentations to the executive team. The only rule is that the presentations cannot be PowerPoints. Past presentations have been delivered as skits, videos and a game show.

There also is a group volunteerism project every summer. Last year students helped build water filtration systems that were shipped to Africa. This year they will participate in beautification projects at area schools.

"We're helping them understand we want you to bring your whole self to work," Reichanadter said. "We think it's important for them to learn … that companies should have a global impact."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Interns]

With a 0.006 percent acceptance rate, the program is harder to get into than Harvard, Reichanadter joked. About half of the program participants are students at top schools such as Stanford University, and half are from universities that are considered Adaptive customers.

"As we formalized the program, the number of applicants grew exponentially," Reichanadter said in an e-mail. "As we have continued to improve the program, this trend continues."

The company employed between 20 percent and 25 percent of the 2017 intern class—either by extending a student's internship or offering full-time employment upon graduation.

Replicate Adaptive's Success 

Reichanadter offered the following recommendations to organizations looking to create a well-rounded internship program that attracts top students:

Obtain support from your organization's leadership. 

Communicate how the internship program will benefit both the organization and the students and emphasize the importance of leaders meeting with the students.

The program Reichanadter created has a 30 percent return rate in turning interns like Gam into full-time Adaptive Insights employees upon graduation.

"We realized this is a way for us to attract talent early on in their career, and we already know they're a culture fit. We've evolved the program to be much more of a feeder program," she said. A Stanford graduate student who interned last year joined the company full-time in June.

"If we hadn't had this program, would we be able to attract him? I don't know," said Reichanadter, who thinks the program "had made a difference in the caliber of [job] candidates we were able to bring in."

Be thoughtful when creating the program. 

Provide interns with meaningful work and access to executives. Gam's intern class met the CEO on the first day and the board of directors within the first several weeks. They also had opportunities to attend a breakfast with the executive team and a question-and-answer session with the CEO, who often stopped to chat with interns, Gam said.

Create a class of interns.

It can be difficult for interns to come into an organization where they are only a handful of people who are college age. Being part of a class "creates an opportunity for them to make lifelong relationships," Reichanadter said.

Gam noted that the number of team-building activities, including a scavenger hunt, gave interns an opportunity to become acquainted socially.

"By the end of the internship, we had solidified ourselves as an intern class."

And they liked being part of an intern cohort, Reichanadter noted.

"One of the No. 1 things they appreciated about the [internship] is the opportunity to work together as a team."

Keep diversity in mind

Create the class with an eye to selecting interns who bring different experiences, strengths and backgrounds to the class.

"We do think of the chemistry of the class we're building," she said. "It is a little bit of art and science" to create a good mix of interns.

Require managers to apply to have an intern. 

"[Interns are] here to make a strategic contribution through the work they do," Reichanadter said. 

There also is the issue of supply and demand; when managers think they have to do work to get an intern, they will work at making the internship a valuable experience, she noted. 

"Not every manager who wants an intern gets an intern. We have a rigorous process internally to make sure our interns have a good experience."

Tips for Success 

Providing meaningful assignments, showcasing intern work with presentations and creating opportunities to collaborate are among the 15 best practices for internship programs recommended by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Other best practices NACE recommends include: 

  • Holding an orientation session for managers and mentors and a separate session for students. 
  • Providing a handbook or website that serves as a guide, answers frequently asked questions and communicates work rules in a welcoming way. A website for interns has the advantage of being easy to change and can be a way for interns to meet each other. Adaptive uses a special Facebook page for this purpose.
  • Providing housing and relocation assistance.
  • Offering scholarships.
  • Offering flex time or other different work schedules.
  • Having an intern manager. If a full-time position is not feasible, NACE suggests using a graduate student working on his or her HR degree as an intern to take charge of the internship program. 
  • Inviting college career center staff and faculty to visit the interns.
  • Holding new-hire panels.
  • Offering training or encouraging taking outside classes.
  • Conducting focus groups and surveys with representatives of your target group.
  • Conducting exit interviews.


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