5 Steps to Building a Winning Internship Program

Interns. They’ll drain your time, make mistakes, and commit political errors—but they will also contribute fresh ideas and add much-needed manpower to complete projects. All in all, it’s usually a fair trade-off—your time for their labor. If you’ve decided that an internship program can benefit your company and your company can help a young person along his or her career path, here are five steps to making it work.

1. Recruit

Once your team agrees to try an internship program, the first step is to assign one person as the intern manager (IM). The IM’s responsibilities should include creating the job description, contacting the universities, recruiting, and interviewing candidates. Both the IM and your management team should be in charge of deciding the interns’ duties and analyzing their work. Decide on the work that needs to be done, determine the amount of hours you need, compensation, and decide how many interns your company should take on.

Make sure the job description is written so students can determine the position’s value. The job posting, derived from the description, should appeal to students, and differentiate your internship from the many competing opportunities that are also being posted. The job posting should describe the job, the tasks the intern will be performing, the skills required, the benefits of the internship, and what the intern will learn, with at least one example of each. In the job posting, request that potential interns submit both a cover letter and a resume.

Post the internship opportunity at universities that offer majors in your business. In my experience, sophomores and juniors tend to be the most reliable interns, because seniors and masters students will often request too much time off to look for full-time work.

Review the submitted applications, paying attention to the professionalism in their cover letter and resume. Is the writing clear? Are the words spelled correctly? Interview all of the qualified candidates before making a decision. Avoid the “warm-body syndrome” of hiring the first person you interview. Record your conclusions after each interview, review findings with your team, and select the top candidates. When you’ve made your decision, submit a written offer, including information on the set hours, paid time off available, compensation (if any), and class credit (if offered).

2. Make Introductions

Be sure to prepare for the interns’ arrival in advance. Make sure the interns have a workstation with a computer and the appropriate security clearance, and that they are included in your company’s systems, as necessary. Notify all managers and staff that the interns have started work, and what their purpose and duties are. Post a welcome note and short bios on the company intranet. Be sure the IM is prepared to manage them.

On day one, welcome them to your firm with an orientation. Review your company’s culture, policies, and procedures, and finalize their schedules. Have the interns sign a contract with their committed hours so that there is no future conflict. Orientation should also include a tour, introductions to key people, and an interactive discussion on the interns’ expectations. After orientation, make your interns feel at home on their first day. Pay attention to the little things, such as giving directions on how to make an outgoing call.

3. Assign Responsibilities

Give your interns the highest level of work possible; you will be surprised how much they know and can accomplish. Create one or two team projects per semester for the interns to work on together in order to promote teamwork, bonding, and motivation. When assigning projects, communicate your expectations clearly, and check their work early on to avoid mistakes. Remember, what seems obvious to you, as a veteran of your job, may be brand new to an intern. The IM, as well as other senior managers, must also budget extra time to work with interns. Explain the interns’ projects to your staff and ask them to review their work and provide feedback. The intern can report day-to-day to the IM, but as a business owner, you should meet with the interns and the IM together on a regular basis, at least several times a week.

Interns should not send out anything on their own, make any changes, or contact others in the firm unless the IM or the direct manager of the project they are working on approves. Be sure to highlight the importance of reviewing their work with a manager. Some of the best and brightest interns can also be aggressive and ambitious, so it is important to explain these boundaries ahead of time.

Some interns, if they don’t know an answer, will provide incorrect data to your customers or staff. They would rather give some information than be perceived as unknowledgeable. Let your interns know ahead of time that it is okay not to know an answer, and that they can always ask for help.

4. Manage

Make sure the interns’ hours are reasonable. Do not let them over-commit their time, or you will be setting them up for failure. As the semester continues, interns may come to you with many excuses on why they cannot come to work. Hold them accountable for their hours and make sure your firm has an attendance and leave of absence policy for the interns to follow. Simultaneously, flexibility is needed to retain interns. Students have demands, but as interns, the students need to learn to say no to certain demands and prioritize their internship. A meeting with their professor is not an excuse to miss internship hours, although a final exam is.

Stay on top of the interns’ work habits. Address any infractions of dress codes or time policies immediately. Have an intern team meeting every two weeks, where you can review their projects, results, and expectations, as well as answer questions. During these team meetings, provide lunch or arrange for a social outing after work.

5. Follow Up

At the end of the internship program, celebrate their success and give them a certificate of completion. Offer to be a recommendation for future employers, but put the responsibility on the intern to keep in touch. (If they do, respond immediately.) If you’re interested in hiring an intern, you should plan on starting the discussions at least a month before they’re due to leave. Find out their interest level, agree on a salary, and have them sign a written offer. If you don’t have any long-term opportunities for the interns, however, you can use your networks to help them find a job.

On the interns’ last day, depending on your company culture, you can take them out to lunch or go out with the rest of the office for after-work drinks. Make sure to ask them what they’ve learned, and let them know how the company has benefited from them, as well. If they’re moving, update their records and keep their contact details on file as potential future hires, or even future clients.

Want to avoid an internship fail? Here’s what NOT to do:

  1. Ignore your interns—you and your staff are much too busy.
  2. Don’t challenge them, just give them basic admin tasks and personal errands to run.
  3. Assign projects, but don’t give them any context on the bigger picture.
  4. Delegate the entire internship program to a junior person.
  5. Do not provide any feedback on the quality of their work.
  6. Reduce your interns to silly non-persons, who are too young to know anything.