We’ve all heard the stories about companies bringing interns in only to fetch coffee and file documents, right? Sadly, those aren’t just stories. Not only have I heard from students who have had bad experiences, I have actually witnessed companies using interns in ways that all but ensure they’ll never want to come back: engineering students brought in to archive old drawings for weeks on end; HR interns used to clean out file cabinets and shred unneeded historical documents; finance students used to plan the department picnic, etc. Sure, we all have parts of our jobs that are less than glamorous and leave us unfulfilled, but dumping all that on an intern, who is supposed to be learning (and filling your talent pipeline) is a total waste and almost guarantees they’ll run screaming for the door. Instead, boost your internship program using these three simple components:
A Good Project
Just because these are college students doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of taking on heady projects that even some of your seasoned pros are struggling with. I have seen students, if given the necessary tools and guidance, tackle some really challenging problems and come up with amazing solutions. Not only do they have an incredible amount of energy, they have an amazing ability to see things differently which allows them to leverage creativity that your day-to-day staff may have buried or forgotten. Before you decide to hire an intern, ask yourself what projects you’ve been dying to work on and haven’t had time for, or what problem have you just not been able to solve. Design an internship around those items, and leave data entry and document shredding off the job description. One note of caution: interns are very efficient and often complete assigned projects in less than half the time you would have expected. Part of this is due to their level of energy, but it also stems from the fact that they are not weighed down as much by time killers such as excessive meetings. Make sure you have enough work to keep them busy for the entire summer – consider having one or two back-up projects available in case they really knock the first one of out of the park three weeks in.
Everyone wants to know how they are doing, but interns especially crave this. Not only do they want to know whether they’re doing a good job, but they want to know what you THINK about them. Consider mimicking your company’s own performance management system in a briefer version for the students. It doesn’t take much for the intern’s manager set some goals at the beginning of the internship and then schedule one or two feedback sessions throughout the summer to check in and give guidance. At the end of the summer, give them some take-aways they can use in their studies and future jobs: what they’ve done well, what they can improve on, how they can leverage their strengths. And give them an outlet for providing feedback on their experience, as well. Just as they need to learn to receive feedback, they need to learn to give it. Asking for their feedback not only adds to their development but also highlights ways in which you can improve the program in the future.
While it may not be possible to host a large group of interns each year, consider bringing in more than one so they develop a sense of kinship. It can be intimidating for a young student to come into a workplace – not only are they likely one of the youngest employees there, but by nature of their position, they are already an “other” of sorts. If you can bring in two more interns together, they will be able to lean on each other for support, have someone to eat lunch with, and just feel a little more like they fit in. If you’re able to bring in three or four students, consider assigning them a separate group project outside of the scope of their regular assignments -something related to company culture, such as creating a wellness initiative or a service project in the community. Not only does this provide them with a sense of camaraderie and teamwork, it also begins to grow the kind of employee you want to hire someday: the one who can solve a variety of problems with a host of different people, as well as one who strives to make the company better and has a sense of loyalty based on cultural stewardship.
The whole purpose of an internship is to give a student an opportunity to apply what they’ve been learning in school and develop some professional real-world experience while simultaneously loading the company’s talent pipeline with future employees. If you’re bringing students in to do grunt work that no one else wants to do and is not really in line with their studies, you’re not serving either purpose. I’ve seen students do amazing things with their internships and come back year after year as interns. Upon graduation, these students become excellent young leaders for the companies they’ve interned for. I’ve also seen interns brought in to clean out filing cabinets and shred documents. They typically become disengaged in a matter of weeks and even if they stay for the summer, are unlikely to come back, let alone consider a full time position upon graduation. If that’s the kind of work you need done, consider a temporary contractor or part-time position and call it what it is. Calling it an internship is a disservice to the student as well as to the organization.