Internships are widely and erroneously believed to be a great way for front-line managers to get “cheap labor.” What many people don’t know is that intern programs are really a critical recruiting tool for the companies who host the interns. The idea is that if you get a bright student to work for your company over the summer or winter break, you can develop a relationship that will bring that student back to you when they’re ready for their first job after college and have many options on where to start their career. You can also prepare them to hit the ground running when they do return because of the skills they built during their internship.
Internships can work very well when managed carefully but they can also go awry. What if the intern has a terrible (or even mediocre) experience? Then, they not only reject the opportunity to come back as a full-time employee, but they also tell their smart friends that your company is a bad place to work. In effect, they become “anti-recruiters.” In our research, we’ve found that there is a direct correlation between a happy intern and a really good knowledge transfer experience. The data shows that if the intern reported a good experience with a mentor who taught them real skills, they were highly likely to report an interest in returning. Conversely, if they reported a bad experience with their mentor, they were certain that they would not want to return.
So, what makes a great internship and a great knowledge transfer experience? We found five things:
- Introduce the intern to a peer mentor who is doing similar work. Ensure that peer mentor has a clear role definition and is trained to provide an excellent experience for the intern. The mentor often serves as their boss while not actually being their formal manager so role clarity is a must.
- Conduct a “First Meeting” to kick off the internship. The manager, peer mentor and Intern all sit down and map out out the entire internship, set expectations for training, work, fun, feedback and communication. Be as specific as possible about how the intern can be a success and provide a way to escalate if he or she runs into trouble.
- Make sure the intern gets introduced to the “Big Picture” within the first few days of the internship. Gen Y has proven that they are much more engaged when they can connect their own work to the greater vision for the company. No connection equals no interest in coming back.
- Make sure the intern spends at least 50% of the time doing “real” work – that is, work that would have to be done by a full-time employee, not just busy work. They need to build real skills while they are with you or they will see the internship as a waste of time.
- Provide a project that has a beginning, middle and end over the course of the internship. This project will be the subject of the stories that the interns will tell their families and smart friends when they get back home. They’ll use these stories to convince themselves and others that your company is a great place to be. Be sure the story is compelling or you may end up with an anti-recruiter and a hit to your employment brand.
You can use this list to tune up your company’s intern program and ensure your internships are both valuable for the students and a great recruiting tool for your company.