Setting up an internship program is an economical way for companies to capitalize on the next generation of talent coming out of college. While not all interns are students, the vast majority are, and figuring out how to recruit competent interns relies on getting your name out to campuses and offering a competitive program.
The first step is to organize your program internally. Rushing in and fumbling the recruiting process will leave you with unhappy interns who are only there to earn college credit and include something on their resume. Think of it like dating. If you want an awesome partner, you’re going to have to be awesome yourself. And if you want interns who are hardworking and conscientious, here’s how to prepare your company
Determine What you can Offer Interns
Before making fliers and posting about your new internship program, make sure your offer is enticing. Think about fast-food restaurants. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King offer minimum wage to get the average set of employees. Other restaurants like Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out will offer above minimum wage and increasing pay to find the best fast-food employees.
If your company is offering an unpaid internship, know that you’re at a disadvantage unless you can provide other benefits. Here are some things interns are searching for.
- Their own projects – Interns want to prove themselves. They don’t want to be brought in to manage grunt work, and you shouldn’t expect them to. Offer them work that junior-level employees would start with and put them in groups to work together.
- Future job opportunities – Make your company known for extending its interns full-time paid positions. This will encourage interns to work hard and stand out amongst their peers.
- Shadow training – CEOs and higher-level executives don’t have time to guide and train interns. What they can offer are days where interns can shadow them as they work. This would provide insight into worlds that are normally closed off.
- Rotation system – Regardless of what they claim, no 20-year-old knows what they want to do for the rest of their career. Their preferences are temporary. They might claim they enjoy marketing because somebody mentioned it’s managing someone else’s social media. Internships are a great way to understand different positions within a company. Set up a rotation system that allows for three- to four-week projects with various departments within the company.
- Real-world experience and benefits – So far, most students have only had classroom, theoretical knowledge. They want to know what it’s like to have a real position with career trajectories and salaries and benefits. You may not be able to offer wages, but workplace lunch and dinner can be a good start.
Finding the Right Interns
Before you can capitalize on the many benefits of interns, you first have to find them. Or rather, they have to find you. There are three main places businesses have success when recruiting interns.
- College campuses – The best resource at your disposal is recruiting through colleges. Universities will put on job fairs where you can set up a booth and perform interviews on the spot. And you can have current employees reach out to their alumni networks to access student emailing lists.
- Internship sites – There are many sites for interns and employers to find one another. WayUp, AfterCollege, and Chegg Internships are all great websites that allow you to find that perfect intern.
- Social media – LinkedIn is a great place to set up internships. There, you’ll be able to see students’ professional resumes and profiles and choose the right fit for your company. It’s also not unheard of to use Facebook ads or Instagram stories to target students looking for an internship.
Put Them to the Test
Now that you have a hundred resumes waiting in your inbox, how do you decide which ones to choose? A common mistake when hiring interns is to look solely at their resumes. Many students and young professionals haven’t had the opportunity to explore career options outside of being a student. For younger people, you need a personal approach where applicants can show what they’ve done and why they’re fit for the company.
- Demonstrate their skills – If your interns are expected to have programming skills, put a bug in some sample code and allow them to find it. Or, if your job requires extracting information out of a study, set up a practice run. This isn’t about testing their proficiency or intelligence—just remember how nervous you were when you first interviewed—it’s about understanding their process. If they’re silent, ask them to think out loud. Guiding them through the process can tell you a lot about their work ethic and personality.
- Offer them an assignment – To get students acclimated to the type of work expected of them as interns, you can offer them a typical assignment. When doing this, make sure you’re not interfering with their final’s week, as this could be adding more stress onto their workload. Ask them when they have two days that are reasonably free and then offer a short assignment.
- Ask them to learn something – Many companies want to embrace the internship programs but don’t have much in terms of entry-level work. For these companies, asking their potential interns whether they would take a class before becoming interns is one way to weed out the dedicated hires from the pack.
- Offer them an impossible test – This method is a little deceptive. However, it can reveal a lot more than a resume. Think of an impossible problem or take a challenging riddle and make it even harder. When you ask interviewees to solve the problem, note how they work through it. Do they give up immediately because it’s too difficult, or do they keep working well past when they’ve already considered it too challenging? If they become frustrated or angry that they can’t figure it out, this might clue you into how working with them would be.
Why Hire Interns?
Utilized appropriately, interns can benefit every level of a company. And no, it’s not to refill coffee cups and take lunch orders. Having fresh, creative minds on existing projects can spark imaginative ideas and help employees view the material with a new perspective. That’s not all…
- Cultivate leadership skills for junior-level employees – You typically won’t want anybody higher than a junior-level employee managing the interns. Junior employees know the company culture, how the chain of command works and can give honest feedback to what it’s like working at the company. In return, junior employees will gain valuable leadership skills in overseeing projects, answering unfamiliar questions, and managing a group of people.
- Assess potential hires – Internships provide a pool of potential hires. If you have a batch of ten interns, chances are two or three are going to stand out as exceptionally talented. Many companies will seek out third-year students and offer them a guaranteed position once they graduate the following year.
- Test out new methods – If your company relies on coming up with creative solutions for other businesses, interns can act as a dartboard for new ideas. Toss lower-level clients to groups of two or three interns and one junior employee to see how they perform. Who knows, they may configure a new way to organize the material you’d otherwise never think to try.
- Boost to company culture – Having young minds who are hungry to prove themselves improves the quality of a company’s culture. Many of them are eager to steal fifteen minutes from a higher-level employee to pick their brain. For the intern, it’s educational. For the employees, it’s flattering.
To make sure your internship program is a success, here are some final tips:
- Balanced workload – Interns who are left sitting with nothing to do will not benefit themselves or your company. And working the interns to the point of burnout won’t foster future hires or great word of mouth for future programs. Make sure you keep a reasonable balance between working and learning. And never allow unpaid interns to work overtime.
- Social events – When your company throws events, invite the interns. This will give them a chance to see their coworkers and bosses in a relaxed environment. A night out with the interns or setting up a game of kickball is another fun way to break down barriers and connect.
- Don’t limit by major – Companies usually put a required major in their application guidelines. But over 30% of college students will change their major within the first three years, and about 10% will change more than once. Requiring a major limits your pool of potential interns.
Update Your Internship Program
When evaluating your internship program, consider both sides of the exchange. Companies want hardworking, awesome interns who will contribute to the success of the company. Interns want to learn the ins and outs of a professional work environment and prove themselves as competent employees.
For this to work, companies need to put in the initial effort of offering interns benefits from financial compensation, future employment, and educational experiences. As long as these benefits are competitive, you’ll be able to recruit competent interns.
Investopedia. Unpaid Internship Impact on the Labor Market. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/12/impact-of-unpaid-internships.asp
Department of Labor. Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act. https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm
U.S. Department of Education. Beginning College Students Who Change Their Majors Within 3 Years of Enrollment. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018434.pdf