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How to build a good internship program

Forget all the intern jokes. If you're having trouble finding good help, student interns can fill the need.

Traditionally, student internships have been the province of big business and viewed as school-to-work programs meant to groom future employees. With the labor market as tight as it has been recently, small businesses are finding that interns can plug holes in their staffing.

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Students offer businesses an enthusiastic pool of fresh talent, eager for meaningful experience to fill their fledgling resumes and prepare them for their careers.

"They're going to learn the basics and fundamentals in school, but nothing compares to hands-on experience," says Geoff Gorvin, public relations manager at Russell & Herder, a Minnesota-based ad agency with a staff of 65.

"I notice the work piling up when I'm between interns," says Gorvin, who developed his department's year-round internship program two years ago. "When they come, the workload decreases dramatically."

Gorvin says he needs interns because "we just don't have the resources to hire somebody full time as an administrative assistant."

However, "an internship should not be free labor or low-cost labor just to do grunt work," warns Linda Segall, editorial director for human resources products at LRP Publications in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. "It has to be a learning experience for the student as well as a production improvement experience for the company."

Gorvin agrees. "One of the things we really want to emphasize when they come in is they're not here just to make copies and make coffee and staple and collate," he says. "They're actually doing public relations tasks."

Provide a challenge
Students share information on good and bad internship experiences, so in order to keep that flow of recruits coming, a company needs to provide a true learning experience.

"Students want to do something challenging, something that will stretch their abilities," says Ron Urwongse, a junior at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Urwongse helped develop Internreview.com, a Web site where students grade internships.

The reviews sent to the site have been about evenly split between good and bad experiences, Urwongse says.

What tops the list of complaints?

"Boredom, lack of things to do, and often the things that students are asked to do are menial tasks and they're not actually learning anything."

After real-world experience and salary, interns are interested in perks and environment. For instance, Urwongse says the key requirement for his next internship will be location because he'd like to experience a city like New York or San Francisco.

His own experience as an intern was good, Urwongse says, because he was given real tasks and because his supervisors were always available to provide guidance.

Segall stresses Urwongse's last point: "You will have to work with the students."

At one of her former companies, she recalls an engineering manager who had no time for his department's intern.

"It was a lose-lose situation."

The situation could have been salvaged if he had delegated the task of supervising the student to one of his junior engineers, Segall says.

One of the big mistakes that companies make, she says, is putting the responsibility for internships in a central area, like the human resources department.

"They can't run an internship program effectively . . . because the HR person cannot direct the day-to-day work flow," she says.

So one of the first questions you need to ask in developing your internship program is whether you have the resources to provide the teaching and supervision that will make the program worthwhile for students.

However, that's not as daunting a task as it seems.

"Interns really like the idea of being given a lot of responsibility and accountability -- a lot of leash," Gorvin says.

"You need to work hard to give them as much direction and responsibility right off the bat," he says. After that, "guide them more than micromanage them."

Gorvin likes to give his students an entire project to manage with real decision-making power. "I tell them, 'Structure this and tell me how you'll do it.'"

Screening potential interns
How do you know your students will be able to handle a long leash? You should know their capabilities by the time your bring them on board.

Remember interns are your employees as well as your students, which means you'll have them apply for the position.

"It's exactly the same as talking to a person who wants a job," Gorvin says. "I ask for a resume and cover letter," which he says screens out all but the most serious students.

Then, he interviews them and asks to see samples from any projects they've done.

To begin your own internship program, Segall says, "You have to assess the job that has to be done. What kind of skills and knowledge is it going to take to get this done?"

And you'll decide whether those skills and knowledge can be expected of interns. Essentially, you'll be writing a job description for them.

You'll also want to decide the pay scale. This can be a juggling act, Segall says, recalling one firm where "we were probably paying interns too much compared with entry-level employees."

Avoid the tendency to treat interns like kings and queens with pay and perks, she says.

"You should always set out realistic expectations for them."

Recruiting
Then, you'll want to recruit by contacting local high schools, colleges and universities -- or even from schools across the country if you have a summer internship (a time when most students are free to travel to a faraway position).

Each school will have its own protocols to follow and paperwork for you to complete, she says.

"If this is an internship for credit, there will be a certain amount of paperwork upfront and at the end that I need to do, basically grading the students," Gorvin says. "Other students are doing it just for the experience, and all they need is a letter of reference."

The head of the internship program at one college with which Gorvin works closely actually visits the agency during the internship to meet with the student and Gorvin, individually and then in tandem.

Such meetings are essential because they provide feedback to improve the program, Segall says. "You want to get feedback, because you want to make sure your program's a successful one."

"It's an educational experience for us as much as it is for them," Gorvin says of the comments he gets from students at the end of their internships. He specifically asks them what they find useful and useless. "They help us structure the program for the next person."

 

 
-- Posted: Jan. 19, 2001
   

 

 
 

 

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