Want to Turn Your Intern Program into a Growth Driver?
Companies recognize internships are important: According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, eight out of 10 use them to recruit entry-level talent. However, not all programs are set up to take full advantage of all interns have to offer. They should be, and here’s why: By 2020, Generation Z—the demographic represented in the current batch of interns—will make up 20 percent of the workforce, according to a 2016 Robert Half report (and, they’ll be your customers as well).
There are distinct pay-offs for organizations that rethink how they value entry-level talent. For one, a program that challenges interns with meaningful work has a clear advantage in recruiting the best and brightest. In fact, a full two-thirds (67 percent) of interns are offered full-time positions, according to NACE’s 2017 Internship & Co-op Report. This makes hiring top interns a clear competitive advantage and a strategic component of building a world class team. And, former interns tend to have high levels of loyalty, with 52 percent of employers reporting a five-year retention rate for interns converted to full-time hires.
Two years ago, we radically reimagined how our organization would recruit, integrate and interact with interns. We asked questions we hadn’t asked before: What type of leadership do interns respond to? How do we cultivate and nurture those traits in tomorrow’s leaders? What do they need to be successful? How do we provide an active learning experience where our interns can obtain hands-on experience with strategic business issues? Rather than hypothesize about what might work, we went directly to the source and looked to our interns for answers.
We adopted many of their recommendations, and in the process we not only retained some rising stars who previously might have gone elsewhere after college, but doubled our applicant pool as well.
Here’s what we learned:
Encourage (and deliver) opportunities for interns to demonstrate their value from the start by embedding interns into small-team projects. Public Strategies, a Hill + Knowlton public affairs consultancy in Austin, does this with its fellowship program. “We place a lot of emphasis on being self-sufficient,” says Katie McCall, who was a Public Strategies fellow during her final semester at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “They tell you, ‘Introduce yourself and get to know people and get on projects. Find your own team. Find accounts where you can add value.’” While such a self-starter environment may not be for everyone, it was perfect for McCall, who joined Public Strategies full-time immediately following her fellowship, and eventually oversaw a team of fellows herself.
Give interns a way to learn real-world lessons and skills throughout their experience. Here at Adaptive Insights, interns attend training workshops on topics ranging from project management and communication to resume writing and networking. As they learn, they apply those new skills directly to office situations and on cross-functional, strategic projects. You’ll find a similar ethos at Evercore, an investment banking advisory firm whose summer associates program was ranked No. 1 on Vault.com for 2016 and 2017. Evercore encourages summer associates to join full-time employees in monthly professional development classes.
Encourage creativity and independent thinking. Placing strategic constraints on people and projects can trigger some inventive approaches (think shrinking healthcare budgets leading to low-cost telemedicine). We’ve seen this firsthand. At the end of every 10-week internship cycle, we ask interns to present a working recommendation around a strategic business issue. To encourage creativity, we forbid the use of PowerPoint. The result? We see skits, signs, videos and interactive games—creative presentations that often are much more effective. Better still, our employees who crowd in to watch these presentations see how constraints can jump-start creativity, and how curiosity and enthusiasm can produce incredible output.
Ensure access to executives. The greatest value from an internship comes from relationships, and that includes executives. At Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (KPCB), the storied Silicon Valley venture capital firm, interns not only interact with KPCB execs, but also with those at portfolio companies including Twitter, Indiegogo, Spotify and Nest. This allows interns an opportunity to get the broadest perspective on business, including the view from the top, as well as the chance to meet potential long-term mentors.
Use personal interests to fuel success. Most people—interns included —are more engaged when they’re allowed to pursue projects that align to their interests. At TidalScale, Chuck Piercey’s recent class of marketing interns included an English major from Santa Clara University who wanted to learn video production. Piercey linked her interests to a need he had, and she produced five slick corporate videos that have proved popular as lead generation assets. “You want to give interns a project that’s achievable in 10 or 12 weeks,” says Piercey. “But if you align that project with their passion, they’ll give you 20 or 24 weeks of work. And they’ll get twice as much out of the program.”
This year, we received 4,000 applications for just 23 internship spots. Harder to quantify, but just as important, are the executives and managers who regularly stop me in the hall to rave about the intern who contributed a creative idea in the department’s brainstorming meeting or suggested a novel approach to a difficult roadblock—or simply offered insights into the next generation. We all have a responsibility to make sure the talent in this up and coming generation is realized. By rethinking how you value entry-level talent, and then reflecting that new thinking in well-designed internship programs, you’ll ensure that the contributions of these young professionals long outlive their 10 weeks at your company.