5 Elements of an Effective Internship Program

By | September 8, 2014
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Dana BinghamBelow is a guest post from Dana Bingham (@danabingham), the director of operations at New Breed Marketing. Dana coordinates the company's internship program, helping connect students with a meaningful and rewarding experience, while also supporting the organization's hiring goals, existing team and clients.

Have you considered creating an internship program or tried utilizing interns in the past and found it to be more work than benefit? If so, you’re not alone; many companies face this problem.

When successfully implemented, internship programs can be instrumental in the growth and development of your organization.

In today’s post, we discuss the five key elements of building an effective internship program. If implemented correctly, not only will you create a great experience for your interns, but you’ll also help grow the next generation of successful employees!

1. Secure Top Quality Candidates 

An internship program is only as successful as the interns themselves. It’s essential that you recruit top quality candidates—ones you can envision as full-time employees at your organization. We know that securing quality candidates can be hard and time consuming, but we’ve got a few quick tips to make this process a little easier:

  • Connect with local universities to get top talent and incentivize for college credit.
  • Look for more than just talent to also ensure they’re a cultural fit for your organization. Try holding two interviews—one for skill and one to evaluate if he or she will fit within your company culture.
  • Leverage your current interns and younger employees. Talented people know other talented people, and they will be instrumental in finding your next best hire.
  • Look for referrals within your existing network (local businesses, peers, etc.).
  • Make the application and interview process thorough and hard—make them work for it. 

2. Clearly Define the Program Including Roles and Responsibilities

Many companies look at interns as people they’ve hired to do the unwanted, minute tasks—kind of like a glorified assistant. But this approach is hurting both of you. You’re not getting the most out of their time at your company, and they’re unhappy, not empowered and unmotivated to prove themselves.

To correct this problem, make sure you’ve clearly defined a roadmap for success, including what the program involves, and interns’ roles and responsibilities. Here are a few tips to get you started: 

  • Define the scope of the internship, including roles and core responsibilities.
  • Leave room for flexibility and creativity. Don’t limit interns from bringing new ideas to the table.
  • Determine who on staff is best suited to mentor interns—this is not a skill set everyone has!

3. Offer Enough Time to Learn and Contribute 

Just like a new employee, an intern can’t be expected to be up-to-speed immediately; however, if you’re using our hiring tips, some may get acquainted much faster than others.

The goal of an internship is to learn—you’re there to teach them about your business, and they’re there to learn. But it’s important that they have enough time to get that hands-on experience. To ensure your interns are getting the most out of your program:

  • Offer enough time to truly assess performance and fit for the organization. Try setting a checkpoint for the first semester to weed out interns that are not the right fit.
  • Consider the length of your internships to help ensure your interns have enough time to learn everything you want them to. New Breed offers a year-long internship program so students can become fully immersed in company culture, get to know our customers and work holistically on campaigns.

4. Implement Performance Checkpoints

Just like full-time employees, interns want and need structure. We recommend that you measure interns just as you would regular employees. Establish performance metrics, and hold regular check-ins and reviews based on the jobs they are responsible for.

Everyone likes to know when they’re doing well and what they could do to improve. By taking time to invest in the review process with your interns, you help ensure the work they’re doing is valuable to your organization.

  • Create quarterly/semester performance reviews based on pre-determined expectations.
  • Challenge interns to meet clearly defined expectations.
  • Create healthy competition.
  • Incentivize for them to advance to paid internship level.
  • Have mentors set up weekly one-on-one meetings, and set SMART goals.

5. Create a Fun, Exciting and Rewarding Environment 

While interns may help you execute on lower-level tasks, you never want them to be bored or uninspired. Your internship program should be educational, but also fun. When your interns have a positive experience, they not only work harder, but they are also more likely to want to stay on and join your company as a full-time employee (if the opportunity is there).

Company culture is the first piece of that, but it’s also thinking about the team they’re joining, the work they’ll be doing, and the atmosphere they’ll be a part of. Here are a few tips to create a positive internship experience: 

  • Pair interns with managers suited to lead and coach. Employees need to be willing to contribute extra time for mentorship.
  • Encourage participation, creativity and new ideas. Let interns become a valued member of your team. 
  • Let customers know that interns are part of the account team, contributing to campaigns and ideas (this helps them take ownership of work and feel like an extension of the team).  

Benefits for Your Company

As you can tell from this post, we’re huge proponents of having an internship program. We believe that interns can help shape the future growth of your company, and when leveraged successfully, they can become integral members of your team. 

Here are just a few other benefits of an effective internship program:

  • If you’re able to establish a highly recommended/sought after internship program, word of mouth and industry referrals will produce a better, more competitive pool of applicants.
  • As valued, contributing members of your account teams, interns can support with internal production and create new opportunities for your existing staff/accounts.
  • A successful internship program can create a pipeline of ideal job candidates based on top performers. Treat the internship as a test drive and see if they fit within the company culture, are able to perform and work well with the existing staff.

Do you have an internship program? What lessons have you learned? Share your experiences in the comments below.