Stephanie Dwilson

How to Run an Internship Program, From Beginning to End

Despite what pop culture tells us, interns can do a lot more than make coffee runs. A good internship program’s main goal isn’t to save money on labor — instead, it provides a way to test potential talent before bringing them on full time and opens up a recruiting pipeline that makes your business more competitive in the job market. It’s also a great way to inject your business with fresh new ideas and help you tap into upcoming trends and technologies.

Here’s how to run an internship program the right way, from the moment it’s conceived to years after an intern’s last day.

Have a Plan Before You Hire

Before you start hiring interns, it’s wise to make a number of basic decisions. Are you just hiring for the summer, or would you prefer to take on interns on a rolling basis as you need them? Summer interns might be able to work longer hours — maybe even full time — which means they can really learn the tools of the trade. On the other hand, you might have a greater pool of talent to choose from during the semester, even if those interns are only working part time.

Not all interns are students, but there’s a reason the match is so common. Put together an internship listing and send it to relevant departments and career centers at nearby colleges and universities. If you’re seeking summer interns, make sure your listing is out to local universities by October.

No matter how you go about hiring your interns, spell out your internship policies early on in the life of the program. Set clear expectations for how many hours they’ll work (and when they can take time off), what they can wear in the workplace and any lunch policies they should be aware of.

Another central consideration is your compensation structure. Generally, paid internships are more competitive than unpaid ones. However, there are other factors at play, and the law changes frequently when it comes to the rules surrounding unpaid internships. Before you set your policies, talk with an attorney to make sure your program’s hours and compensation structure follow the law.

Making an Internship a Success

First and foremost, an internship should be about mentoring interns and offering them job experiences that they can apply to their lives. Your interns shouldn’t just report to HR or the company president. Pair them with a department manager who oversees their work and meets with them at least once a week to support their progress and answer questions.

By that same token, don’t put them in a corner and give them busy work. Pinpoint your interns’ professional goals and try to match them with tangible projects they can feature in their portfolio. Have the graphic designer draft a brochure. Put the writer’s talents to use putting press releases together. Let coding interns build programs you’ll actually use. If you give interns high-stakes projects, they’ll be more engaged and have stronger ties to the work the company does, even after the internship is over.

How to End an Internship

When it’s time to end an internship, conduct an exit interview with each intern. Ask what they liked about the experience and what they would improve. You might also want to follow the interview up with an anonymous survey so they’ll answer more freely. Before the intern leaves, write a general referral letter that discusses the projects they excelled at. Getting this out of the way early will ensure that their accomplishments are still fresh in your memory. Give them a copy and offer to make a new copy addressed to specific employers when needed.

Better yet, consider whether you want to offer any of your all-star interns a full-time job once they graduate. Remember: If you want to hire a former intern, reach out to them sooner rather than later. At the very least, contact them around the winter holidays, explaining that you know they’ll be graduating in a few months and that you’re interested in talking to them about full-time employment.

Even if your internship program doesn’t lead to a permanent hire, it’s a good idea to keep in touch. Consider hosting an annual internship anniversary event where former interns can return for a catered lunch and talk to new interns about the experience, nurturing a supportive community and an active network.

An internship program can be a huge asset to your business — for the work interns do at your business, sure, but also for the relationships it allows you to build through mutual value. Helping your company’s bottom line is important, but that only happens in the long term if your interns walk away with a positive review at the end of it all. If you want to run a successful internship program, start with how you can best help an intern’s future career.

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