My local paper just ran a piece on how companies are poaching university professors for AI work, raising concerns among faculty that “they’re eating the seed corn.” It’s another reminder that recruiting technical talent is not getting any easier. Companies will need to grow talent from within – which brings me to a popular spring topic: internships.
Internships are widely and erroneously believed to be a great way for front-line managers to get “cheap labor.” What many people overlook, is that intern programs are a critical recruiting tool. If you get a bright student who has a great experience with your company, they may come back when they’re ready for their first job. And – bonus – they’ll hit the ground running with the skills they built during their internship.
However, if that intern has a terrible (or even mediocre) experience, they may reject the opportunity to come back, and (even worse) tell their smart friends that your company is a bad place to work. In effect, they become “anti-recruiters.” So, how do you avoid this?
5 Steps to Turn Interns into Full-Time Staff & Employment Brand Ambassadors
A few years back, I worked with Microsoft (which is regularly ranked among the top 10 best companies to intern with) to conduct research and improve their internship program. Through that work, we found that there is a direct correlation between a happy intern and a great knowledge transfer experience.
The data showed 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. When we examined the intern-mentor relationships more closely, we found five key elements to a great internship:
- 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 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. Younger generations have 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.
What about your company? Do you have an internship program? Is it generating a pipeline for new employees? What’s working? What’s not? I’d love to learn from your experience. Please feel free to email me: