Good intern programs accelerate hiring success

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Have you thought about incorporating interns into your business, but decided against the idea because you reasoned you were too small or couldn’t compete with large companies and their professional intern programs? Think again. In today’s under-staffed economy, interns offer unique benefits to companies of any size, including sole proprietorships.

An effective intern program can have multiple benefits for you personally, for your staff, and for your company. Interns can do lower level tasks or projects that you never seem to get to, freeing you and your staff to focus on what’s important. Interns are usually cheaper than hiring an employee to do the same task and have a short-term impact on your finances. With interns that are in their latter years of college, you get an advance look at prospective employees and can hire only the best. In fact, in the years that my company sponsored a summer internship for college juniors, seniors and recent graduates, we ended up hiring some of our best employees from those that interned with us. Lastly, interns bring energy and fresh perspective into the workplace, which we all can use.

A successful intern program is more than just placing an ad at the local college and paying a student minimum wage. To accomplish meaningful objectives, it takes some advance planning and implementation of a few proven strategies, but the results will be worth it. First of all, determine the tasks to be done and skills set needed by the interns. Consider tasks that you or other staff members can delegate with only moderate training as well as the projects that never seem to get done. Then draw up a brief list of the skills needed by the intern. Remember, even though you may be a high-tech company, with short-term interns it is possible to consider bringing in an English student to write project reports.

Develop relationships with multiple colleges in the area. We have an excellent variety of colleges in Colorado Springs that have internships built into their educational programs. For convenience, most interns come from local colleges, but also consider national colleges that have a special expertise in a related field to your industry. Most colleges have a department or staff member that coordinates requests for interns. Local professors may also be a good source of recommendations for specific skill sets you are looking for.

Look for interns that can be great future employees. There is no question that the process for hiring a new full-time employee is fraught with risk and expense, but when an intern has already worked for months under your roof, you get a low-cost look at a potential future employee. You have a pretty good idea how they will perform if hired full-time. In my experience, this is one of the biggest benefits of corporate internship programs, which is why it makes sense to involve interns in more than just clerical and gofer activities. Give them the chance to “show their stuff” by the occasional higher-level project (with adequate supervision, of course). And then step back and expect to be surprised.

Interns can only be successful if they are provided adequate training. Your time, or the time of another employee, is one of the costs of an internship program that cannot be avoided. When an intern first arrives, give them the same orientation you would give a new employee. And if you are so inclined, give interns an orientation to every department and function in your company as well as your broader industry. We hosted a weekly lunchtime intern training program where department heads took turns explaining what they and their staff did. And before the intern leaves, their last task should be to write up a training manual for the next intern. It not only ensures that the manual will be written from the perspective of an entry-level employee, but you get someone else to write the manual instead of taking the time yourself. Providing mentoring opportunities for interns also honors their contribution and learning.

Finally, give the interns a full evaluation. Their college may supply evaluation forms that need to be completed for them to get college credit, but use your own employee performance evaluation process and forms as well so they receive a full evaluation of their performance. Interns can bring cost-effective performance, energy, and even new ideas to your business, so give them a try.

Kent Wilson (PhD) is a business practitioner and nonprofit leadership specialist. After running companies for 30 years, he now facilitates high-value CEO peer advisory groups and coaches each member with Vistage International in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at kent.wilson@vistage.com.