People Strategy

RfH Insights: How to Implement Successful Internship Programs

March 12, 2021
November 7, 2023
Manasi Patel
Lattice Team

Internship programs benefit businesses and young professionals alike. For companies, they’re a way to evolve workplace culture, boost productivity, and strengthen talent pipelines. For prospective interns, they’re a chance to gain professional experience while forming valuable career connections. But not every internship program is created equal — the best ones are structured with care and attention to detail. 

Last week, HR leaders in the Resources for Humans community discussed their do’s and don’ts when it comes to internship programs. Here’s what we learned from their experiences.

1. Identify your goals.

Designing clear criteria is an important process for any successful internship program. In order to attract the best talent, you need to define exactly what it is that you’re looking for from each of the intern-level roles you open up.

“We are very picky about our interns — we only hire the best of the best who are driven by growth opportunities, having impact, and enjoying a good culture,” said Liz Willette, Vice President of Human Resources at PerformLine.

Hiring interns is an opportunity for your company to grow by tapping into new talent. Before you start promoting your internship program, take the time to ask the right questions and hone in on what you’re looking for.

“We're right at the start of things,” said Liz McConnaughey, Senior Technical Recruiter at Beam Dental. “Right now, we've been circling around [the question of] what do we want to get from these internships? Is it because we want to develop a very talented pipeline, or is it that we want to uplift in the community? There's overlap for both, to be sure.” 

Clarifying the ”why” behind your internship program is essential. But this is only the beginning of things to consider before rolling out your internship program. Some other questions to think about are:

  • Who are the interns going to work with? 
  • How many interns will you hire and for which departments?
  • Who is your ideal candidate for the internship(s)? 
  • What hard and soft skills do you want them to have? 
  • How many hours do you want them to work?
  • What are your expectations for the interns? 
  • What KPIs will you put in place to evaluate their performance?

When considering which skills you want your interns to have, keep in mind that most candidates are early in their careers — meaning they may not have any direct relevant experience for the roles you’re looking for. This is why it’s important to identify transferable skills that can translate into valuable qualities in the workplace. Critical thinking, strong communication, and leadership are all transferable skills that candidates demonstrate through extracurricular activities or hobbies. Focusing on these qualities will help manage expectations and prioritize candidates that exhibit the most potential for growth.

2. Broaden your search.

Once you have a solid idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to start searching for candidates. There are a number of ways to advertise internships, the most common of which are college job boards and campus recruiting. With their large concentration of young professionals, universities are great places to reach out for potential interns — but keep in mind that they may not offer the most diverse set of options

“We have some teams that feel very strongly about ensuring some of these positions are going to folks who normally wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to get into tech. So we're exploring partnerships and other sources where we could advertise our internships that aren't the typical four year comp sci program,” said McConnaughey.

There is plenty of talent for businesses to explore outside of the academic world, so consider expanding your search to other professional and social forums. Along with university job boards and internship directories, employment sites like LinkedIn and Indeed are well-known options for recruiting potential interns. 

It’s also worth noting that the majority of young professionals are active on social media, so it might make sense to post internship opportunities on your company’s social media accounts and other online platforms.

Lastly, if you’ve already implemented an internship program in the past, find out what drove your most successful interns to apply. You can use these insights to fine-tune your sourcing efforts. Be sure to clearly outline the benefits of your program to potential candidates, including professional achievements, opportunities for growth, and past success stories.

3. Provide support.

You wouldn’t expect your best employee to work without some level of support. Even a well-seasoned professional needs help learning the ropes in a new environment. In order to set your interns up for success, it’s important to provide them with the guidance and resources they need as new members of the workforce.

“Absolutely make sure [your interns] have a buddy or mentor system set in place,” said Thomas Rooke, Talent Acquisition and Employer Brand Manager at iland.

Mentoring programs offer a number of benefits for interns as well as the employees who mentor them. As an intern, working with a mentor is a valuable opportunity to learn about workplace dynamics, industry landscapes, and role-specific skills. As an employee, mentoring an intern is a chance to develop management skills and take on leadership roles in the company. These programs often have a positive effect on retention and performance for both mentors and mentees.

Outlining her organization’s approach to mentorship, Willette explained that “interns pick their top three choices for mentors, which can be literally anyone in the company. We then evaluate the bandwidth and willingness of the mentors and assign [interns] one of their top three. They have weekly one-on-ones with their mentor for the remainder of the internship and get invited to sit in on calls and meetings where possible. These are not extra work assignments, this is just a learning and networking opportunity.” 

Another valuable aspect of internships is peer support and team building. Internships are a chance for young professionals to build relationships that will help them advance in their careers. Group onboarding and training is a great way to foster camaraderie between interns.

“We hire one intern per team but train and onboard the interns together. All interns meet every department head over the first couple weeks of work to hear what each department does and how they work with other departments,” said Willette.

4. Offer value.

Internship programs are often limited when it comes to budget, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be rewarding. While it’s always a good idea to offer paid internships, there are plenty of ways to provide interns with value beyond their paycheck.

Interview Workshops

“Toward the middle of [each] internship, we revamp interns’ resumes with feedback based on their future growth goals. The interview training is focused on helping them harbor the mentality/tools to research and interview companies and choose full time roles that will match their needs,” said Willette.

“About a week after the training ends, we book mock interviews where [interns] come in with their newly revamped resumes and newfound interview skills. They interview for a full-time role of their choice at ‘PretendLine.’ Following the mock interview, they get consultative and constructive feedback with context and tips for the future.”

Networking Opportunities

“[We] meet once a week for lunch. The interns loved it as they all worked in different departments and were able to learn what the others were working on, and it was a good gauge to ensure everything was going well,” said Penny McNerney, Vice President of Human Resources at QC Terme Spas and Resorts.

Willette shared that at her company, “We take them off site, usually to our New York City WeWork office, and do a half day of interview training followed by a happy hour with all the interns, intern managers, mentors, and anyone else who wants to join.”

Portfolio Building

Think of internship programs as a unique opportunity to develop future leaders. One of the best ways to prepare your interns for the workforce is to have them work on projects and activities they can add to their portfolio or leverage for future job searches.

“The interns [at PerformLine] present as a group to the entire company during their last week,” said Willette. “They can do a creative project about something they learned...or showcase data on their biggest impact or proudest project. This gives them a chance to present to C-levels and a large group, probably for the first time. Our interns help out in marketing, events, sales, and even engineering, so it is always something new!”

Providing your interns with a well-rounded experience will help your program stand out against competitors looking for top talent. When your interns can see that you’re invested in their success, they’re more likely to spread the word about your company to future candidates or consider joining your organization full-time.

5. Learn and improve.

The most important thing to remember about internship programs is that they’re a learning experience — not just for the interns themselves, but for your company. Interns can introduce a fresh, outside  perspective that helps solve problems and improve processes for your business. 

The most successful organizations value a strong feedback culture that extends into their internship programs. At the end of the internship, try sending out an anonymous survey or encouraging open discussion about your interns’ experiences at your company. The right insights can help you refine the structure and recruitment process for future internship programs

Does your company work with interns? Share your experiences and see what others are saying by joining the Resources for Humans Slack community.