How to Ensure a Five-Star Rating for Your Internship Program

Most of us can probably recall that internship in college when we made coffee, moved boxes, and filed endless stacks of paper. We added it to our resume, but did it prepare us for career success? The tragedy is, we came in ready to change the world, work hard, and accept any challenge. Unfortunately, that all fell by the wayside after our first day of mindless, tedious, and unfulfilling work.

Interns these days are looking for opportunities to learn, build new skills, and contribute in meaningful ways. If you’re looking for interns this summer, start developing an internship program that meets all those important needs. You will attract more committed interns who are happier, more productive, and who can develop into long-term assets for your company.

Give Structure to Your Program

Can you hire your boss’s brother-in-law’s niece on his mother’s side to file documents for the summer? Sure. But why waste an opportunity? If you spend a little bit of time crafting a program that aligns with your company values, not just expediency or favoritism, you can come out ahead. Internships are an opportunity to develop and foster new talent and begin to grow professionals who will become leaders in the field, or maybe even your own company.

“We’ve hired former interns to become full-time employees multiple times. I like to think of it as a two- to three-month interview.” —Liz Wessel, co-founder and CEO, WayUp

Not all interns will be the right fit, but a well-developed program will benefit interns, managers, and your company in equal measure.

To Pay or Not to Pay?

The consensus is “to pay.” Experts believe real work should be compensated with real earnings. Your potential pool of applicants will be more diverse and probably better qualified for the position you are advertising. Once hired, a paycheck usually motivates people to work harder, holds them accountable, and helps them feel like a member of the team.

Reviewing the Fair Labor Standards Act will clarify things like minimum wages per state and lists criteria that would qualify an internship as unpaid. All fair labor laws apply to interns the same as regular employees.

Develop a Clear Job Description

A job description will not only give a prospective intern a better idea if the position might be of interest, but will also be a handy reference point for evaluation once they accept the job. Outlining specific goals and expectations is one more step towards success for your intern. Most interns aim to please; they just need to know what you want. Even seasoned employees do 100% better when provided with adequate direction on projects. But remember, interns may not have a lot of formal work experience or a broad understanding of the office environment. They have a steep learning curve, so keep that in mind when you define, and then evaluate, expectations. The best internships are good learning experiences too.

What’s important to universities and their students? Read 15 best practices for internship programs from their side of the equation.

Manage the Daily Grind

A good rule of thumb is to mix short- and long-term projects. Seeing a beginning, middle, and end to a project elicits a sense of satisfaction in work completed and will help keep interns motivated. Even if you have clearly defined goals and expectations, you still need to check in on interns regularly. Ensuring they are still on task by answering questions and providing feedback and encouragement will help elicit the kind of work you’re hoping for. Regular check-ins will also help keep your intern feeling valuable and an important member of the team. Tapping into an intern’s natural set of skills and interests is also a helpful way to keep them engaged.

Review the workload of interns with your managers and other staff members to ensure you are not overloading. Interns typically will not speak up because they want to seem efficient and capable even though they may have been assigned work by multiple people who don’t realize what else is on their plate. By coordinating projects across departments, interns are less likely to get caught up in office red-tape trying to navigate an office culture they know little about. Regular planning will move projects more efficiently across an intern’s desk and provide some insight about how projects are scheduled and managed in a typical office environment.

Identify a Mentor

Interns can be overwhelmed in the first few hours meeting new people, trying to remember the office layout, and being anxious about saying the wrong thing. Identifying someone in your company to act as a mentor will help with the transition. Often a junior-level employee is a good fit and will promote a more relaxed relationship that is less tied to performance. The mentor-intern relationship can foster development and growth specifically around workplace culture. From how to book a conference room to what is appropriate work attire, having a mentor will help expand an intern’s practical knowledge and boost their confidence.

Appoint an Internship Coordinator

The coordinator can be an existing employee (or two) who acts as the main point person for interns, managers, internal staff, and mentors. If your company has a human resources department or manager, the coordinator would interface with them as well. The coordinator should advocate for interns and push them to reach their goals. Intern-only activities to promote relationship-building, as well as career, skill, and business development opportunities could fall under the coordinator’s duties as well. Perhaps an additional stipend for acting as a coordinator would be appropriate to encourage employees to step forward. Both interns and your company would benefit from a well-run program.

Conduct Helpful Performance Reviews

Remember that job description you developed? It will do double duty here by providing a roadmap for performance reviews. Employees of every stripe need praise, honesty, and constructive criticism. No one can reach their full potential without taking risks, failing, and trying again. Learning how to offer and accept a critique is an important skill to develop in the workplace and in life.

Sandwich-approach: Lead with praise for what has been accomplished so far, move into areas for improvement, and end with praise for meeting expectations.

Your mentors, as well as anyone who has assigned work to an intern, should provide input. By performing regular reviews, the intern coordinator can offer the guidance an intern needs to stay focused and motivated. It’s also a regular forum for interns to express concerns and problems or ask questions about projects or the workplace.

A quality internship program and terrific interns don’t just happen; they need to be nurtured. However, with a pay-it-forward mentality, your interns, company, as well as the industry, will all benefit.

Does your company have a formal internship program? How did you structure your program for success?

This article is for informational purposes only.

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