Running a successful intern program, while extremely advantageous for a company, can be hard work. First, you have to find and interview candidates. Once chosen, you must orient, educate, and meld them with the existing components of your company. Then, just when you are starting to accept their presence and value their contributions, they are gone: back to school or back on the job hunt. That's a lot of work for a few months' contribution, and yet companies still hire interns, because they are both essential short-term contributors as well as the future of our workforce.
Given the recurring nature of the process, it is important to seek shortcuts and efficiencies wherever you can when operating an intern program. Here, in five steps, is a recipe for a great intern program created through trial and error at Gibraltar Associates (GA).
Step 1: Know what you want.
Great interns don't just show up on your doorstep. With that in mind, before you ever publish a listing for an internship position, you need to decide the following three things.
First, what do you need interns for? Filling an administrative support role is much simpler than finding a budding Brian Solis or Gini Dietrich to support a new communications campaign. The higher your expectations for the internship, the more specific and targeted your job posting needs to be in order to save you time (and spare unqualified or inappropriate candidates from frustration).
Second, where do you want your interns to come from? Whether you are trying to hire local college kids to be a supportive booster, seeking experienced graduate students, or looking for qualified but unemployed workers who are already out of school, it helps to target your search. Start with posting the internship on your own homepage, but also decide if you want to post on school job boards, job posting sites and Craigslist, or circulate a position among colleagues.
Finally, what do you expect an intern to be able to do? Good job postings clearly explain what experience and skills are desired of a potential intern and what the role will entail, ensuring you get candidates who are qualified, but also have appropriate expectations if hired.
Step 2: Structure, structure, structure.
Interns arrive on day one completely uneducated in the ways of your company. It is your job, as an intern coordinator, to teach them; otherwise, you end up with unproductive and unhappy interns and an unimpressed staff. The key to launching interns down the path to success is to structure their program. Before they show up on the first day, help them understand what to expect. Create materials that you can reuse every time you hire a new intern, including a welcome memo with all the basic details governing their internship and life in your company; a list of projects that they will be responsible for on a recurring basis; and an orientation schedule for their first week to introduce them to your team and your clients.
What materials you need will vary by company, but the general theme is to think about what you would want to know if you were starting on day one. Think back to when you were a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed intern and figure out how to formalize that knowledge in print as much as humanly possible. This helps to ensure that orienting future intern groups will become progressively simpler as you get used to a certain method.
Step 3: Communicate early and often.
You are not a wild animal forcing its babies to run off into the wild and survive on their own; you are an intern coordinator. Hopefully, the distinction is clear. Scheduling weekly or even daily check-in meetings with interns ensures that they are able to learn and grow in real-time, so that when obstacles — no work, too much work, unclear guidance — arise, problems never last long.
Regular feedback and interaction help interns grow in knowledge and confidence. Also, the difference between a good intern and a fired intern can easily be active versus passive communications, so err on the side of over-communicating. It’s important to understand that they might need more of your time early on in order to succeed, but they will return the favor by completing increasingly accomplished work on an exponential growth curve.
Step 4: Integrate and educate.
In an ideal intern program, by the time a round of internships is completed, you can't help but wish that you could hire every intern in the group. That will be a reflection on your choice of interns, but it will also reflect on your ability to help them integrate into your company. Interns are driven and eager; they have not yet found their way in life and understand that nothing positive will accrue to them if they can't show their value in an entry-level position. To help them succeed, work with the entire company to make everyone responsible for helping them grow in knowledge, experience and confidence. It takes a company to raise the perfect intern.
It is also important to remember that having an intern — particularly an unpaid intern — is not a right, but a privilege. Your company benefits from their labor, helping you keep personnel costs down as you pursue growth in other areas. Do not take interns for granted. View their growth as part of your responsibility to them, in exchange for their commitment and dedication.
Step 5: Enjoy.
Ultimately, you will have brought in some promising young people and helped shape their lives, while they have helped your company take another step forward. Running an intern program is initially a lot of work, but the next time around, it will be easier. Eventually you will write your own recipe for a great intern program.
This piece is cross-posted on Gibraltar LLC's blog.
Brian Wagner is a senior manager at Gibraltar Associates, Navy Reserve public affairs officer and founder of LendVets. He encourages readers to connect with him online. All opinions expressed are his own.
McBee|Gibraltar is the strategic communications solution on the McBee Strategic Consulting platform, based in Washington, D.C.. Forged in 2013 between McBee and Gibraltar Associates, McBee|Gibraltar provides communications counsel and services to global corporations, smaller public and private companies, investment and professional service firms and high-profile individuals. www.McBeeStrategic.com