Interns Can Do More than Make Copies, Get Coffee

Interns Can Do More than Make Copies, Get Coffee

Spring is upon us and summer is not far behind, so many businesses are employing college interns to fill positions. An internship should be carefully monitored work or service where a college student has learning goals and can actively integrate what he is learning through his experience.

If your firm is considering creating or filling an internship this summer, this article should provide help in developing a program. Some important features to consider:

  • An internship can be set for anywhere from a couple of months to as long as one year, but typically lasts from three to six months. Most firms design it as a one-time experience. It can be either part-time or full-time. But it must be paid. Compensation is important, and for all the reasons you can think of: Who wants to work for free anymore? And, college isn’t cheap.
  • Most internships are part of a program at a college and may be monitored and evaluated by the university to grant academic credit or be part of a learning plan someone develops individually (noncredit).

An element that distinguishes a college-level internship from a short-term job or volunteer work is that it has a learning plan — explicit for making a contribution to the intern’s knowledge of an industry or profession and structured to secure new skills and competencies. Done correctly, the student may get full credit beyond making a few bucks for books, a car payment, or his cell phone bill.

So how do you know what kind of internship program works best?

Step 1: Set Expectations Together

A discussion between the college program and the management of your organization should create a consensus on goals that help all employees understand the objectives and expectations. The program and individual internship positions should be designed to meet those expectations. As many human-resources professionals know, for an internship program to succeed, it requires the commitment of management at all levels.

Often-asked (and answered) questions include: What does your company hope to achieve? Are you a small company searching for additional help on a specific project? Is your company growing quickly and having difficulty finding new employees? Are you a nonprofit that doesn’t have much money to pay, but can provide an interesting and rewarding experience? Is your organization searching for new employees with management potential?

Step 2: Write a Plan

Managers, mentors and the interns all rely on what you communicate about the experience. Draft a job description that clearly explains the duties of the job. Do you want someone for a specific project? What is it and how will you know when it’s completed or successful? What about support around the workplace? How important might it be to give the intern a sampling of everything your company does?

Academic experts and university internship program personnel can work with you to structure the internship so that you can be sure it meets your goals.

These are just some of the questions to consider. The approach of your company depends on your resources and needs. What will you pay the intern? Wages vary widely from field to field, so be sure yours are competitive or offer competitive incentives. Where will you put the intern? Do you have adequate workspace for him? Will you help him or her to make parking arrangements and living arrangements? What sort of academic background and experience do you want in an intern? Decide on standards for quality beforehand.

A critical part of your plan should be the assignment of a dedicated mentor or supervisor – that is, someone in charge of the intern. Who will have the primary responsibility? Will that person be a mentor or a supervisor? This person doesn’t have to be an executive, but should be selected because he likes to teach or train and has the time and patience. If the person you select has never mentored an intern, get him (or her) some basic training in mentoring.

What will the intern do? Be specific. Interns, like others learning, need structure so they don’t become lost, confused or bored. Do you want to plan a program beyond the work you give your interns? Will there be special training programs, performance reviews, lunches with executives, social events?

Step 3: Recruiting Interns

The No. 1 tip from those who have established programs is to start early. This cannot be overemphasized. Many firms enhance their corporate images on campuses by attending college-sponsored internship events and job fairs. They place ads in school newspapers, business-school newsletters and on the academic department websites.

Another way to promote yourself is to involve yourself with the many campus-student organizations that know people and often work with employment and placement projects. This type of networking helps.

Step 4: Managing, Mentoring

The beginning days of the internship program are often the most defining days. When you give them their first tasks, you’re signaling what you expect. If you give them nothing or little to do, it sends a message that this job will be easy. And boring. Interns don’t want that. Neither do employers.

Provide interns an overview of your organization. Some companies give talks or hand out information about the history of the company, its vision and services. Explain who does what and what the intern’s duties are. Introduce him or her to co-workers and give him a complete tour. Making your intern at home in the office is a great start.

Give your intern the resources he needs to do the job. That might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many companies stick their interns in the conference room or transfer them from desk to desk.

Plan to monitor the intern. This doesn’t mean to watch his every move, but make sure you know what’s happening with his daily tasks. Watch for signs that the intern is confused or bored. As often as silence means that an intern is busy, it means that he is confused and too shy to tell you.

It’s easy to be shy in a workplace full of older strangers who all know each other. See whether the intern is trying to do anything that requires someone else’s input. Make sure that work is taking precedence over web browsing and activities on the smartphone. Paying attention early helps you head off problems and bad habits early on.

Similarly, it’s important to give them abundant feedback. Especially if your interns have never done this kind of work, they’ll want to know if their work is measuring up to your expectations. Periodically, examine what your intern has produced and make suggestions.

Step 5: Evaluate Intern’s Progress.

Remember those goals you outlined early on? Evaluation processes differ. Yours might be as formal as written evaluations every week or as informal as occasional lunches with the intern’s mentor. Some companies have the intern evaluate the experience and company as well. Again, your coordination is largely up to your company culture and needs.

These evaluations should prove handy later if you interview a former intern for full-time work, or to publicize how successful your program has been.

Stay Focused on the Future

With the job market experiencing a shortage of qualified employees, it only makes sense to consider qualified college students whom you can bring back. When you take on interns, you’ll have a competitive advantage. They will be trained for your workplace and loyal to your company, lowering training time significantly, reducing recruiting costs and troublesome turnover rates.

You’ll also be building a reputation that will pay off with students, colleges and the business community.

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