Need to improve your internship Program?

Industrial Psychologist Phiona Martin discusses five things your company can do.

How do companies ensure interns are not considered an additional burden by already busy employees who have to babysit them for the duration of this experience? Similarly, how can companies safeguard against ill-structured internships that make no significant valuable contributions to an intern’s professional development?

Following my article on why every employee should consider running internship programs and the benefits thereof, I would like to highlight, as a next step, some effective strategies to ensuring a great internship experience for all stakeholders involved. In order to ensure that your internship program is engaging and impressive to staff members, management and interns, it must include the following elements: an individual that is overall accountable for the delivery of the internship program; alignment to all stakeholders through well-designed orientation activities; work experience that provides meaningful tasks for the interns; Connecting interns to high value networks within the company; and formal debriefing and evaluation sessions with the interns at the end.

Have a dedicated intern manager

A common complaint about internships that have gone wrong is the lack of attention given to the internship program. This can often result in miscommunication, confusion and lack of buy-in across the company. Allocating a resource devoted to ensuring the internship experience is given the attention it requires may be additional work for employees who are already busy with their core organisational duties, but it is a necessary precursor to the success of any internship. A dedicated intern manager is critical and does not necessarily have to be a human resources staff member. It can be anyone within the organisation who has a passion for mentoring and developing young professionals. The dedicated intern manager will ideally be the primary “go-to” person for all internship related matters and ensure buy-in and awareness of the program across the organisation. Additionally, the intern manager will monitor interns’ progress, track benefits for the employer to warrant a continuing business case for investment in the program.

Have a well-crafted orientation program

The orientation of interns should be more than a walk around the company and a “meet and greet” with other staff members. Organisations need to take the opportunity to make the first day meaningful, by outlining expectations and creating excitement about the internship program.  The orientation should cover key aspects of office culture, dress code, professionalism, company mission, vision and policies, while it should also outline key activities of the internship. Ensuring that all key stakeholders, interns and supervisors start with the same expectations and role definitions will give the internship a good start and the effort of time invested in this will pay dividends throughout the program. The orientation needs to be formal and standardised, not merely done at the discretion of the supervisor. The key individuals who should participate should include all managers/supervisors involved in the internship program as well as mentors.

 

Provide meaningful work

Interns may provide a great pair of extra hands around the office, but this does not mean they should be solely confined to all the mundane tasks or low priority work. The internship has to have a considerable amount of meaningful work for the intern and during the inevitable menial tasks (printing, filing etc.), it should be explained how the task supports the employer’s objectives. Offer interns challenging work assignments that are recognized by the organization as valuable and also related to the interns’ professional development goals. Along with allocating tasks, also find out what the interns personal learning goals are and try to accommodate for them if they are not part of the internship activities.

A great way to develop a great internship experience is through having a standardised training program that is curated and developed by the interns themselves. This means, your inaugural interns should have, as one of their key tasks, creating a training program for future interns. Each year, subsequent interns can contribute by refining, adding or removing elements of the program based on their experiences. If you find that an intern excels at a particular activity, get them to draw up a training manual on it. At the end of the internship, give students a platform to show off their experience through presentations or a showcase to the wider organisation. This will serve to provide the interns with a sense of achievement and pride in their work as well as provides visibility of the impact of internships to the organisation.

Help interns build professional networks

Networking is a critical part of career success and, therefore, as part of the internship experience, it is important to allow your interns to start creating a professional network by accessing accomplished professionals within their field in the organisation. This can be done through setting up coffee chats with other employees and equipping the interns to take initiative in getting to know staff members they are unlikely to engage with within the formal structure of the internship. It may even be a good idea to give them a target of how many networking engagements they should undertake throughout the internship. A networking soiree where employees and interns have a special event to interact in a casual yet professional manner is also a great activity. Occasionally having speakers from senior ranks of the organisation is often very exciting for interns and communicates that there is vested interest, support and recognition of the internship program from the highest echelons of the company.   

Feedback and Evaluation

At the end of the internship experience, there should be a mandatory feedback and performance evaluation process. It is key, as part of the interns' development process to get some structured feedback on their performance and areas of improvement. To make this process easier, get the intern to provide weekly reports or a journal that tracks their activities, goal achievements and key learnings. If the intern has done a rotational programme, there should be an evaluation form completed by the respective supervisor in the department even if their tenure there was a week or two. Encourage the interns to be a proactive part of this process by even seeking feedback even from colleagues they engaged with outside of the internship structures e.g. informal mentors and other employees who may have got to know them well enough to provide an evaluation.

Internships are a great way to introduce students to the world of work and demonstrate commitment, on the part of the organisation, towards developing young professionals. Often being short in duration, it is key to ensure that the internship is well structured to maximise on the few weeks or months available. As such, it is critical to have one person accountable for the program, a solid orientation to facilitate alignment and manage expectations for both employees and interns. Allocated work must be meaningful to give the intern with “real-world” professional experience and the company should enable them to create valuable networks that will play a key role in their professional growth in years to come. Finally, evaluation and feedback are important in order to have the intern walk away with information that will contribute to their growth.