Excerpted from Building a Premier Internship Program: A Practical Guide for Employers (NACE university relations and relations members receive a complimentary copy of this resource as part of their welcome kit.)
Providing interns with real work is number one to ensuring your program’s
success. Interns should be doing work related to their major, that is
challenging, that is recognized by the organization as valuable, and that fills
the entire work term.
You can guarantee that hiring managers provide real work assignments by
checking job descriptions, emphasizing the importance of real work assignments
during a manager/mentor orientation sessions, and communicating with interns
frequently throughout the work term to determine who they perceive what they
*Note: The best practices presented here assume the organization's goal
is to convert interns to full-time hires and is therefore paying its
interns. Unpaid internships present a number of problems for organizations
focused on intern conversion, not the least of which is legal issues that arise
if the unpaid intern is given real work assignments.
It’s important that everyone “be on the same page,” so to speak. Make this
happen by holding an orientation session for managers and mentors as well as a
session for students. Orientations ensure that everyone starts with the same
expectations and role definitions. This is time well spent—the effort you put
into these sessions will pay off throughout the program.
Whether in paper booklet format, or presented as a special section on your
website, a handbook serves as a guide for students, answering frequently asked
questions and communicating the “rules” in a warm and welcoming way.
A separate intern website serves many of the purposes of the handbook, but
has the advantage of being easy to change. You can use your website as a
communication tool, with announcements from the college relations staff or even
articles of interest written by the interns themselves.
Few employers can afford to provide fully paid housing for interns, but
you’ll find that you get a lot of appreciation if you offer any kind of
assistance toward housing expenses. If that’s not possible, provide assistance
in locating affordable housing: For those relocating to the job site, the
prospect of finding affordable, short-term housing can be daunting. Easy availability
of affordable housing will make your opportunity more attractive to
students, broadening your pool of candidates.
If you can pay for all or some of your interns’ housing, be sure to design
(and stick to) a clear policy detailing who is eligible. This will eliminate
any perceptions of unequal treatment. In addition, be aware that employer-paid
or employer-subsidized housing is considered a taxable benefit. Check with your
internal tax department on exceptions to this.
You will also want to consider the issue of relocation, which is separate
although related to housing. Many organizations pay some or all of their
interns’ relocation expenses to and/or from the job site.
Pairing a scholarship with your internship is a great way to recruit for
your internship program—and this is especially true if you are having
difficulty attracting a particular type of student or student with a specific
skill set to your program. Attaching a scholarship can increase your pool of
candidates with the desired qualifications.
Students mention flex-time as one of their most-desired features in a job.
(A flexible time schedule during their internship eases their
transition to the workplace.)
If you think about how students spend the day on campus (varied schedule
each day, with varied activities such as work, class, social time), you can
understand that 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday is a bit of an
adjustment for them. A flexible schedule can make them feel less chained in by
an unchanging routine.
Other work arrangements that have been found successful with students include
keeping them on as part-time, remote employees after they go back to school
(depending on the type of work they do for you and whether they have a willing
manager), and having them come back and work over school breaks for a couple of
weeks. These are excellent ways to keep communications open and build a stronger
Having a dedicated manager for your intern program is the best way to ensure
that it runs smoothly and stays focused on your criteria for success.
Unfortunately, the size and resources available to most internship programs
mean that this isn’t always possible. If your program isn’t big enough to
warrant a dedicated full-time staff member, an excellent short-term solution is
to hire a graduate student (look for a student working toward an advanced HR
degree) to be your intern, and put this college relations intern in charge of
the daily operation of the internship program. This gives the interns a “go-to”
person, and gives you and your staff a break from the many daily tasks involved
in running a program of any size. For this to work, you have to plan the
program structure in advance (don’t expect your intern to do it), and be very
accessible to your college relations intern.
Involve your college recruiting teams—whether they are “volunteers” who
participate in college recruiting, staff members dedicated to college
recruiting, or some combination of both—in your intern program. They can
sponsor social or professional development events, and help to orient the
interns to your company culture. In my experience, college team members served
as cooks at intern picnics, hosts at speaker events, and drivers for social
outings such as ball games.
Although some programs—especially those that are very structured on the
university side—make visits by career center staff and faculty a regular practice,
most do not. In general, career center staff and faculty members have
relatively few opportunities to visit employer work sites to see firsthand the
types of experiences that their students are getting. By inviting them to your
site, you will build a better working relationship with these groups, which can
lead to more student referrals, enhanced campus visibility, and increased
flexibility on their parts when your business needs dictate it.
New-hire panels are one of the best ways to showcase an
organization to interns as a great place to work. These are panels of five or
six people who were hired as new grads within the last three years. They act as
panelists in a meeting of interns, giving a brief summary of their background
and then answering questions from the intern audience. Your interns get insight
about your organization from your new hires—people who they perceive are like
themselves and who they consequently view as credible sources of
In these meetings, I’ve found that the interns consistently bring up the
same topics: Why did you choose this employer over others? What was your
first year like? How is being a full-time employee here different from being an
intern? Do you recommend getting a graduate degree? In the same field, or an
M.B.A.? Is it better to go straight to graduate school after the bachelor’s or
better to work a while?
It’s also fairly consistent that the new hires will offer other types of
advice to your interns, such as how to handle finances those first couple of
years out of school. (Their typical advice: Don’t run right out and buy a
new car, and, Start contributing the maximum to your savings plan as
soon as you are allowed.)
College relations staff should attend these sessions, but should remain
unobtrusive, staying in the back of the room so as not to stifle the
conversation. By being there, you stay aware of what is on the minds of your
target group, and you can answer any detailed questions that may come up, such as
those related to benefits.
One of the greatest advantages to students in having internships is the
access they get to accomplished professionals in their field. Consequently,
speakers from the executive ranks are very popular with students—it’s a
great career development and role modeling experience for interns. Having a CEO
speak is especially impressive. Best scenario: Your CEO speaker is personable,
willing to answer questions, and willing and able to spend a little informal
time with the students after speaking—your interns will be quite
For you, having your executives speak to interns is another way to “sell”
your organization to the interns, and get your executives invested in (and
supporting) your program.
Providing students with access to in-house training—both in
work-skills-related areas, such as a computer language, and in general skills
areas, such as time management—is a tangible way to show students you are
interested in their development.
You may also want to consider providing interns with information about
nearby community colleges: Many students will be interested in attending during
their work term to take care of some electives and/or get a little ahead with
the hours they need to graduate. If you have the budget, you may also want to
consider paying the tuition for courses they take while working for you, but,
as is the case with housing, any assistance you can provide—even if it’s just
providing them with information about local schools—will earn you points with
Conducting focus groups and feedback surveys with these representatives of
your target group is a great way to see your organization as the students see
it. Focus groups in particular can yield information about what your
competitors are doing that students find appealing.
Students work very hard at completing their work and are generally proud of
their accomplishments. Setting up a venue for them to do presentations (formal
presentations or in a fair-type setting such as an expo) not only allows them
to demonstrate their achievements, but also showcases the internship program to
Whether face-to-face or over the telephone, a real-time exit interview done
by a member of the college relations team is an excellent way to gather
feedback on the student’s experience and to assess their interest in coming
back. Having the students fill out an exit survey and bring it to the interview
gives some structure to the conversation.
Courtesy of the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
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