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  • Innovation Through Collaboration

    August 01, 2017 | By Caroline McAteer and Marla Morgen

    Branding & Marketing
    Avatars climb a mountain of gears.

    TAGS: internships, branding and marketing, journal

    NACE Journal, August 2017

    Leveraging Institutional Relationships to Market Internships Through Employer Hubs

    At DePaul University, we have developed a unique strategy for expanding internship opportunities for students: The Career Center and the Office of the General Counsel collaborate to offer a workshop for employers on developing and providing high quality and legally compliant internships.

    The workshop covers different aspects of internships, such as development, onboarding, supervision, and evaluation, and also provides in-depth information on several hot topics.

    The workshop itself is not specifically focused on internships at our institution. Indeed, one of the most desirable aspects of the workshop is its broad-based applicability. However, by creating an opportunity for our institution to assist and develop relationships with various employers, the workshops have become an integral part of an overall strategy to develop sustained relationships with employers that lead to increased internship opportunities for our students.

    This initiative is a high-impact practice that can be adapted by institutions of all sizes and types. In this article, we detail the development and implementation, and offer a roadmap and practical suggestions for schools that wish to explore this approach.

    Identifying the Need

    This initiative arose organically in 2015. In our work managing the career center’s employer relations and service on the board of a local chamber of commerce, we repeatedly heard from small businesses and startups that they wanted to hire interns but were not sure where to start. It became clear that one obstacle was that employers did not know about available resources. They were simply unaware that they could reach out to the career center at a local college or university for support and guidance.

    This prompted an idea: What if, instead of waiting for employers to reach out to us, we went to them? This would support employers, while simultaneously growing new partnerships and increasing opportunities for our students.

    Employer Hubs

    Once we identified the need, we assessed how to reach employers efficiently. The idea of delivering a workshop was appealing, as we had already seen great success with our annual Internships Best Practices Forum on campus. The forum was an effective way to reach a large audience, but we knew that it missed many employers, particularly the small businesses and startups most in need of support. Taking the content of the forum “on the road” seemed promising.

    We considered providing the workshop individually to employers. However, given that one goal of the workshop was to develop partnerships, we were concerned that a single-employer model would not result in a significant return on investment.

    We recalibrated. Rather than targeting individual employers, we developed a strategy for reaching employers through what we call “employer hubs.” These include organizations such as trade associations and chambers of commerce, plus shared work space venues, incubators, and business development councils.

    Each type of employer hub has its own characteristics, and thus different needs. For example, an incubator aims to launch startups successfully, while a shared work space may serve both small companies and outposts of larger, more established companies. However, one common element of employer hubs is that they are membership based. This makes offering the workshop at employer hubs attractive to both the university and the employer hub. For us, the membership base provided an easily accessible pool of employers. Likewise, employer hubs are looking for low-cost ways to deliver value to their members. Indeed, many employer hubs have a community manager or professional development coordinator tasked with creating programming that supports the members’ success. A workshop on internships is relevant to employers of all sizes, in any industry.

    The end result is win-win. We add value to the employer hubs by offering a workshop at no cost on a topic of interest to many of their members, and we engage a wide audience of employers.

    To facilitate this approach, we cultivated relationships with the employer hubs themselves. First, we reached out to the largest incubator in Chicago, and held our first workshop there in January 2016. Based on the positive feedback from employers that the incubator staff received about the workshop, the staff referred us to another incubator in the same building and created a new relationship.

    Word-of-mouth referrals are easy outreach, but our goal was to connect with more organizations. Consequently, after our first workshop, we began actively following up with workshop participants, seeking additional connections and referrals. We also found that the network of community managers who organize programming for employer hubs is a close-knit community that could be mined for further opportunities. Building credibility as a top-notch professional development opportunity helped our initiative grow.

    Developing the Workshop Content

    From conversations over the years with employers who would be potential workshop participants, we knew the workshop needed to concisely deliver substantive and practical information. Moreover, at least to some degree, the workshop had to be broadly applicable.

    We designed our content to answer the overarching question we had heard from employers: I know I want an intern, but where do I start? Answering this became our roadmap.

    Our workshop begins with a discussion about why internships are valuable for employers. We include qualitative and quantitative data to support the notion that more and more employers are looking to their intern pool for full-time employees. Additionally, we explain how having a successful internship experience pays off if the student refers friends and classmates to apply to the employer’s internships in the future; in such a case, the student serves, in essence, as the employer’s brand ambassador on campus. The key message here is that while having an internship requires an investment in management and mentoring, the pipeline of future talent being developed promises an immense return on that investment.

    Next, the workshop explores each part of the internship cycle, beginning with the internship job description. Based on our experience, we know that many internship descriptions don’t include learning goals and objectives for the student. We also know that students want an internship job description to show them what they will gain through the experience. In our workshop, we encourage employers to include what students will learn in their description, and we provide tips for crafting an internship job description to grab students' attention and speak to their goals. In addition, we remind employers that the Career Center is available to review internship job descriptions prior to posting.

    Up next is onboarding. We have heard from many students that their first few days at an internship left them with a negative experience. We detail the three phases of a successful on-boarding: pre-internship communications such as an introductory e-mail, the critical first day, and follow-up during the first few weeks of the internship to ensure that the onboarding has been smooth.

    We also spend significant time on best practices for supervision and evaluation. We outline day-to-day supervision, discuss how to provide feedback on specific projects and deliverables, and offer insight into providing complementary mentorship and networking activities that can enhance an internship experience for the student. We also provide suggestions on opportunities for informal and formal periodic feedback and evaluation, emphasizing that such feedback should include whether the intern is on track to accomplish learning goals and objectives.

    Having gone through the internship cycle, the workshop then turns to several topics that are always of particular interest to participants: social media-focused internships, virtual internships, compensation, and the legal requirements surrounding internships.

    Small businesses and startups typically don’t have the bandwidth to handle their own social media strategy and implementation needs, and often turn to an intern. Our experience shows that a properly managed social media-focused internship can be a positive experience for all involved. However, we have also seen that such experiences can be derailed by lack of structure or training. In our workshop, we recommend to employers that they vet the intern’s posts, develop hard benchmarks for success, and involve the intern in larger strategy conversations to ensure the intern understand the organization’s goals.

    Virtual internships are another area of interest, especially for small companies and startups without physical offices. Through our workshop, we offer best practices for virtual internships, e.g., having a regular schedule for “co-working” sessions at a local coffee shop or at the student’s university, and making sure that the intern feels supported and part of a community through planned interactions.

    The workshop also features information about legal issues surrounding internships, including compensation, which is of great interest to employers. This provided us with an opportunity to engage others on our campus. Like many universities, our institution has in-house attorneys who provide advice and counsel to university clients—including the Career Center—on a wide-range of matters, including issues related to experiential education such as employment considerations and risk management. We thought that this readily available legal expertise could be leveraged to deepen the workshop. To that end, Career Center staff reached out to contacts in the Office of the General Counsel to propose partnering. Enhancing partnerships with employers is a key element of the center’s strategic plan, and the Office of the General Counsel stood ready to assist with facilitating the center’s goals.

    Including a lawyer from the university's Office of the General Counsel greatly benefits the workshop. According to the feedback we have received, hearing about regulatory and legal frameworks directly from a lawyer increases the credibility of the information being delivered. (Of course, we are careful to clarify that the workshop should not be construed as legal advice for an employer’s individual circumstances.)

    Lessons Learned

    Ultimately, our experience has taught us that the long-term success of this initiative depends on several things.

    Get the right people at the table: Sustaining this initiative as a quality ongoing endeavor requires dedication of the involved institutional partners. The chemistry and enthusiasm of the people participating matters. We incorporated legal issues into our workshop because an opportunity to partner with the Office of the General Counsel presented itself. However, if that connection is not possible on your campus, consider tapping into the skills of other institutional partners; collaboration can strengthen the workshop. For example, if financial affairs is interested in partnering, the workshop could include advanced content on taxation and pay procedures. Likewise, if relationships exist with risk management, the workshop could highlight issues such as workers’ compensation and liability insurance. Ultimately, effective workshops could include engaged university partners with a wide-range of subject matter expertise.

    Be realistic: One of the most appealing aspects of this effort is that it is scalable. Successful implementation will look different at different institutions, depending on factors such as size, resources, and location (urban vs. rural). We have found that there is a high demand for the workshop. That demand increases with additional marketing, employer outreach, and word-of-mouth sharing. But the workshop requires a commitment of all parties involved. Over time, we recognized that our campus partners have competing demands for their time and decided to limit the number of sessions per month. This enables us to keep our campus partners engaged. Further, respecting campus partners’ time keeps relationships strong and maintains long-term viability.

    Know your audience and tailor the workshop to its needs. We continually strive to be useful to the populations we serve. Initially developed to address an identified gap in programming, the workshop has evolved in response to feedback. For example, when our participants indicated that they wanted more information about virtual internships, we expanded that section of the workshop. Additionally, on a case-by-case basis, we take the time to learn about the employers using a particular employer hub, and customize the workshop to that population. This need not be a labor intensive process. For example, if an employer hub caters to startups in the arts industry, the examples can focus on situations arising in that sector. While it is efficient to have general content at the core of the workshop, adapting to the needs of a particular audience creates a more intimate and relevant experience.

    Develop multi-faceted relationships with employers who participate in the workshop. This workshop is just one tool in the employer relations tool box. Employer relationships will be most beneficial to students and the institution if cultivated through a variety of touch points. For example, the Career Center offers a workshop series throughout the year with free on-campus workshops on various recruitment topics. The employers we have met through the employer hubs are invited to attend. We also have developed a guide for employers, which we distribute through numerous channels, including at the workshop. The on-campus workshop series supports employers by assisting with their hiring strategies year-round, and builds strong relationships by reminding them that our institutional experts are available to assist with their hiring needs, whether for an internship or a full-time position. In short, when used as part of a larger employer relations strategy, the workshop is a springboard for cultivating robust relationships with both employer hubs and individual employers.


    Since we began our initiative, we have offered the workshop 17 times to approximately 200 employers. The feedback we have received from participants and from the employer hub staff has been overwhelming positive, and we’ve enjoyed a number of additional referrals to other employers and hubs, to the benefit of our overall employer relations effort. We have also seen many workshop participants post their internship opportunities with our job board, and, although it is anecdotal, the feedback we have received from students taking part in these opportunities has also been positive.

    Caroline McAteer Caroline McAteer is the associate director of employer engagement and partnerships for the DePaul University Career Center, where she has worked for more than 15 years managing employer relations. In her role, McAteer partners closely with Chicago-area businesses and nonprofit organizations that are interested in hiring DePaul interns, and educates employers on internship best practices, the Department of Labor criteria for unpaid internships, and the value of paying interns. She is serving her 12th year as a board member for the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, and serves on the board of the Chicago Area Public Affairs Group along with several other nonprofit organizations’ boards of directors in Chicago.

    Marla MorgenMarla Morgen is senior associate general counsel for DePaul University. In her position, Morgen provides legal counsel on a wide variety of areas, including student affairs, experiential education, and international programs. She regularly provides advice and counsel regarding the structuring and management of a host of experiential education opportunities, including internships. Prior to joining the legal team at DePaul in 2006, Morgen worked as a litigator at Chicago law firm Goldberg Kohn and served as a law clerk to Judge Milton Shadur on the federal court for the Northern District of Illinois.