Internships: Workforce Readiness, Found Productivity

Internships represent a “triple threat” opportunity for the business world — they help managers pressed for time, workforces strapped for resources and next-generation workers eager to make their mark. But despite these opportunities, internship programs represent the biggest blind spot within the American business community.

As a talent crisis increasingly becomes apparent, and today’s workforce struggles to do more with less, internships represent an unprecedented opportunity to infuse the economy with an untapped pipeline of student talent. They also ready an emerging workforce to succeed, reducing the widening gap between labor and business competency.

Until recently, the primary (and often sole) motive for employers to offer internship programs was to gain a recruitment advantage. That motive is quite valid — businesses can take prospects for a test-drive and groom them for relatively little cost and minimal risk. This includes not having to pay benefits or make a long-term commitment to a graduate of unknown quality. In short, internships reduce employee recruiting time, costs and mistakes.

The five most critical elements to the success of any internship program are:

1. Commitment starts with internal buy in. Company executives must promote an organizational culture that values students’ abilities and contributions. Putting commitment to work requires the means to build your internship program with the proper structure. You will need to:

•    Budget for program costs such as campus recruiting, technology tools and compensation.
•    Allocate proper staff resources and allot time to manage the program.
•    Invest in the one-time cost and effort to develop program resources to support effective hiring, orientation, training, evaluation and sustained improvement.

2. Definition involves planning programs and setting goals. This begins with taking a comprehensive work inventory in advance. Among other things, this project pipeline is what defines recruitment goals, program metrics, resource needs and budgeting, and it sets the stage to make interns most productive.

3. Ownership is about making someone accountable for all aspects of the internship program. This person should be fully qualified to supervise students and be innately motivated to do his or her best for both the organization and interns. Avoid assigning this responsibility to novice managers — this individual should possess at least two years of supervision and project management experience.

4. Engagement is about making a fully engaged effort to recruit and manage interns most effectively. Apply the same standards and diligence as you do when recruiting full-time employees, especially if hiring them upon graduation is an ultimate goal of your program. Start by identifying two to three nearby schools that have academic programs that match your criteria. Forge relationships. Seek guidance from career services professionals and faculty advisers who have an inside track. Make personal connections within alumni associations and student organizations that match your business needs.

The best program means nothing with the wrong interns. Likewise, having the best interns is pointless if you fail to fully utilize and develop their talents and skills or leave them disappointed and disillusioned.

5. Development means going beyond on-the-job-training. Managers need to balance productive work assignments with opportunities for growth. The sooner you train students to be more capable, the sooner they can apply that competency to be more productive. Lectures, textbooks or tests never can substitute for the hands-on experience your organization can provide.

Whatever goals you set for your program — to increase productivity and profit or to improve talent acquisition, development and retention — internships create a world of opportunity with infinite possibilities.

HR professionals are in the best position to guide their organizations toward valuable internship programs. They can create and develop a world-class internship program that achieves more than simply recruiting the top college talent. They also can go a step further to help students and young managers gain valuable experience while enabling the organization to benefit from valuable productivity and grow future employees.

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