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Your ability to win over early-in-career talent is going to be essential to setting the foundation for your workforce in the years to come.

A strategically aligned internship program will help you recruit the talent your organization needs, bring in fresh ideas and perspectives, and positively impact your employer brand.

The interns you hire are more likely to stay at your organization compared to non-intern early-career graduates.

I started my journey at my current company as an intern, so I can attest firsthand to the effectiveness of these programs.

Here I’ll share how to start an internship program of your own, as well as some best practices.

How To Start An Internship Program

Step 1: Define objectives and goals 

All human resource efforts must be intentionally aligned to enable your organization's strategic imperatives.  

Your internship program is no different, so your first step in building out your internship program should be to define its objectives and goals and be highly intentional about how it will support your overall business strategy.

I’d encourage you to set meaningful KPIs that allow you to track progress against your goals, make data-based decisions, and ensure you’re successful in contributing to your organization’s short-term and long-term objectives.  

Step 2: Design the program 

The design of your program is essentially the framework through which you’ll execute against the goals you identified above.

First and foremost this begins with workforce planning. What is the quantity and quality of talent you need in various roles in the future to meet your organization’s objectives?

You must staff your internship program appropriately to meet your future hiring needs. 

This may mean being a bit narrow about the types of roles you hire for.

For example, if you have a growing need in your tech teams, but not your finance, then it would make sense to offer tech-based internship opportunities over finance.  

Knowing the type of talent you will need allows you to begin defining the jobs your interns will do. 

Well-crafted job descriptions help you to define roles and responsibilities and will also help you establish your compensation and benefits strategy for your internship positions.  

The expectations of the roles—both during and after your internship program—should be leveraged to determine the appropriate compensation required to attract and retain top talent for your internship programs and junior hiring.  

Lastly, in designing your program, I would recommend building out a strong evaluation strategy that tracks back to the objectives and goals of your program.

Evaluation components to consider:

  • Intern and intern manager satisfaction with the program
  • Conversion rates upon hire
  • Retention and engagement of hired interns over time.  

Step 3: Design the intern experience 

After you’ve created the overall structure of your intern experience, it’s time to design and document the actual experiences your interns will have during their internship program. 

Important decisions to align on include:

  • What will be the duration of the intern experience? 
  • What are the overall learning objectives and supporting learning experiences of your internship experience? 
  • What experiences do you expect the intern to have with their hiring manager/team?
  • What experiences do you expect them to have as a cohort?
  • What networking opportunities/opportunities to interface with leadership will be provided to interns?
  • How should coaching/feedback be provided to the individual? 

In my opinion, your internship program should include a healthy balance of both intern cohort-based experiences and work experience within their manager/team.

Cohort-type experiences could include team-building exercises, business immersion segments to learn more about different parts of your business, and community service activities.

Step 4: Intern program resource management 

Once you’ve established your program design, I'd recommend considering resource management for your internship program.

Based upon the size and scope of your program you’ll need to ensure that you have the appropriate support structure in place to manage your program now and into the future.

A smaller program may only require an internship coordinator to manage your program. Larger programs may require a whole University Relations type team to manage the breadth of your internship experience.  

You’ll also need to ensure that you have sufficient intern managers aligned to support the number of interns you hire.

Your intern managers must have the appropriate bandwidth required to give your interns the coaching, development, and support they need to be successful.  

Remember that your interns will likely need significantly more support than a more experienced colleague to be successful.

Onboard your intern managers appropriately into the program, provide them with specific expectations of their role as intern managers, and give them the tools and resources needed to create the best possible experience for your incoming interns.

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Step 5: Develop and execute a recruitment and university relations strategy 

Creating a marketing strategy designed to meet your intern candidates where they are is critical. The two focus areas I recommend are colleges and social media.  

Building out your brand as an early-in-career hiring organization on LinkedIn is a great way to attract Gen Z talent, and TikTok and other social media platforms are increasingly being leveraged as recruitment tools.

Building relationships with specific universities is another effective way of building pipelines of talent into your organization and allows you to have an on-campus presence to meet and source for your internship talent. 

Look to build relationships with schools offering degrees tied to your hiring needs and can provide ample talent for the needs of your organization.

Further, you can build connections with universities that can support your diversity hiring needs.  

An emerging approach is to partner directly with diverse schools like Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) or Historically Black Colleges (HBCs) which are graduating talent who specialize in the spaces you’ll be hiring.  

This allows you to build a bench of early-in-career diverse talent and reshape your workforce for years to come.  

Step 6: Screening and interviewing 

While you don’t want to make your interview process overly arduous, I would recommend at least two rounds of interviews.

The first round should be done centrally by your talent acquisition/internship program management team.

This initial phase of the interview is designed to ensure that candidates passed to intern hiring leaders are well vetted, meet the job requirements posted, and are aligned with your future hiring needs as an organization.

Once your initial talent pool is vetted you can move qualified candidates on to stage two with the leaders who will manage them through their intern experience. 

As mentioned previously, providing your intern managers with the tools and support they’ll need is critical to the success of the program.  

One key support resource that I would recommend is an interview guide. This helps ensure your candidates are evaluated using the same set of questions/evaluation criteria resulting in a more objective evaluation of your talent and increased legal compliance to mitigate discrimination or illicit interview practices.

Once vetted by the hiring managers, your talent acquisition team can extend offers and lock in your interns. 

Step 7: Host and graduate interns 

Hosting your interns is where you see all of your hard work paid off. If you’re well-prepped then this will be the simplest and easiest stage of your process.  

One essential component to hosting your interns is their orientation and onboarding. A thorough orientation helps them get familiarized with your company's culture and policies and understand key team members (e.g. the intern program team, their hiring leader, and other support structures).

Throughout hosting your interns, they should engage in a healthy blend of both programmatic/cohort-based activities as well as work activities within their manager’s team.  

Through both of these channels, you need to ensure they’re getting sufficient professional development (e.g. worktops, training, and access to online learning opportunities), performance and developmental feedback, and critical networking opportunities both with other interns and with colleagues/leaders around your organization.

I still lean on the relationships I established during my internship years ago and believe that networking is one of the primary mechanisms through which you can support the growth and internal mobility of your talent.

Step 8. Extend job offers 

At the end of the internship program, you want to immediately move into your job offer phase.  

The program should have provided you with a strong assessment of your intern talent and provided them with a unique insight into opportunities at your organization.

I would challenge you to set a goal of converting at least 65% of your interns to employees upon their forthcoming graduation. This is essential to realizing a true ROI on the investments you’ve made into your internship program.

Step 9. Revisit your goals, don’t just “rinse and repeat” 

The conclusion of your intern cycle is the perfect time to revisit your evaluation strategy.  

Throughout the process, and especially during your interns' time with your organization, you should have been executing against your evaluation strategy and collecting critical data to inform the iterative design of your program to ensure it continues to meet your business needs.  

Exit interviews are another great source of data from your interns which can help make adjustments for your next round of interns.

Additionally, it’s essential you revisit the goals your internship is trying to accomplish and tweak your program to meet those needs as your business goals evolve.

A critical mistake I see in intern program design is to blindly ‘rinse and repeat’ intern programs year over year without evolving them to continue to meet the shifting priorities of your talent strategy.  

Internship Program Best Practices

Let’s take a look at some best practices you should employ as you execute your intern strategy.

Hire interns earlier than you think 

Attracting and hiring top-tier early-in-career talent is getting more competitive every year and getting an early start on your hiring process is a great way to ensure you don’t lose out on the rush to hire great intern talent.

Assuming you’re hosting summer interns, I’d recommend that you post and begin to source for your internship opportunities the fall prior

The sooner you can post and extend job offers for your intern opportunities, the better to ensure you have a competitive slate of interns joining when your program kicks off.  

Strong managers and mentors

Beyond the core group of colleagues managing your internship program, there are two critical roles that will have a major impact on your interns’ experience: their manager and their mentor. 

We’ve all heard the saying that employees “don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses”  and research has found that 50% to 75% of employees leave because of their manager.

So, to attract your interns to stay with you upon graduation, it’s critical that you pair them up with managers who can provide a special experience for the interns.  

It’s essential that you partner interns with leaders who have the right skills and mentality, and enough time to support them through their internship program.  

Consider having the ability to host an intern at your organization to be a special privilege that’s only allotted to the best and brightest of your people managers.

Additionally, mentorship can add critical support needed to be successful through their internship experience and beyond.  

One of my favorite practices is to partner your interns with a mentor who is early-in-career themselves or, better yet, a graduate of your internship program.

This allows them to build connections with someone who is not too unlike themselves and who can help them navigate both their work and your organization.

Provide meaningful work

A critical component of your internship program design is providing your interns with actual meaningful work that will both challenge them and help them to grow professionally. 

Intrinsic motivation (being motivated by the activity/work itself) is an essential motivating factor, especially for early-in-career talent.

Your interns deserve to be involved in interesting and exciting work that’ll challenge them and afford them the opportunity to learn from your best and brightest people. 

This is critical to ensuring your interns are engaged throughout their experience and for attracting them to join your organization as full-time employees upon their graduation.

Offers at the end

Although mentioned above, this is worth reiterating: building job offers into your process is critical to locking in the next generation of talent. 

Your internship program can be a critical pipeline into entry-level roles for your organization and I highly recommend extending job offers to interns you hope to hire before they even go back to school.

Paid vs. unpaid

While ultimately this is a personal decision that you need to make based upon the strategic direction of your organization, paid internships tend to have better outcomes both for the interns themselves and for employers.  

I’d encourage you to read the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ statement on unpaid internships, which explores this issue in great detail.

Their research indicates that college students who have paid internships are more likely to get job offers and are offered a higher salary rate than those who participate in no internship or unpaid internship programs.  

Further, unpaid internships can create systemic inequities with women, black, and Hispanic college students being underrepresented in paid internship opportunities.

This is harmful both to the interns themselves as well as your ability to achieve your organization's DEIB efforts.

Benefits Of A Corporate Internship Program

My internship was my golden ticket to the organization I still work at today. 

The relations I gained during my internship have been critical to my growth through the ranks into a director-level leadership position.

While employers should be providing internship opportunities because it’s the right thing to do to support the next generation of talent in the workforce, I can assure you that the benefits of starting an internship program are far from just altruistic.

Recruitment of early-in-career talent

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 66.4% of internship opportunities end up getting converted into full-time position opportunities. This is a critical pipeline into your early-in-career talent pool and an essential opportunity for you to bring the next generation of talent into your organization.

Extended interviewing

Hiring decisions are tricky to say the least. It’s very difficult to determine an individual’s fit both for a job and for a company via the interview process. 

Internships provide employers with the added benefit of seeing their potential talent in action before extending a job offer.

Additionally, research has shown that interns who convert to employees are 32% more likely to be retained versus those who did not intern with your organization, meaning you’ll be more likely to retain your talent and reduce the incremental expenses associated with employee turnover.  

Considering the cost to replace an employee is usually around 1.5 to 2 times their annual salary, you should look at your internship program as a cost-effective mechanism to attract and retain early-in-career talent to your organization.

Positive publicity and building your brand

Internships can do wonders for your brand awareness and cast your organization in a more positive light helping to recruit talent far beyond just your interns. 

Social media presence should be a major part of your internship experience. Younger audiences are much more prominent in utilizing social media and your interns can play a significant role in acting as brand ambassadors both online and on campuses.

Supports your DEIB efforts

A well-constructed internship program can be a primary vehicle for supporting your DEIB efforts.  

Fielding a diverse slate of interns allows you to convert a diverse slate of early-in-career talent to begin flushing out your talent pipeline.

Further, recent graduate data shows a widening pay gap for female graduates who are earning only 72 cents per every dollar of their male counterparts (down from 81 cents per dollar during recent years). 

Making intentional efforts to support and hire female talent at equitable rates through their internship experience can have a lasting impact on closing the pay equity gap for women and setting female colleagues up for long-term success.

Internship Programs Will Help You Win The Talent War

Is your business prepared for the aging workforce?

Internships are a cost-effective way to bring highly-vetted talent into your organization that’s more likely to stick around longer.

They’re also great for your employer brand and DEI efforts.

I’d encourage you to think of ways to continue to focus on the engagement and retention of your intern graduates once they join your workforce.

Your ex-interns are the future of your organization so it pays dividends to continue to invest in their growth and development.

Make sure they know that they matter, prioritize additional investments in them, give them feedback, and, most importantly, continue to put them in places where they can shine.

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How long should an internship last?

The length of your internship program will vary drastically based on your organizational goals and the roles you are hiring for.

Most professional internship opportunities last 1-3 months, a long enough period to give the intern enough exposure to a role and organization. This is typical for summer intern-type experiences.

Longer-term internships may be beneficial for more complex roles and also provide the added benefit of giving the intern the ability to better understand the work environment and contribute more to the organization.

One good example of this is for roles like clinicians, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers.

These roles often require lengthy internships that span the entire school year and give students the critical skill-building required to be successful in their new role upon graduation.

What are the different types of internships?

There are numerous types of internship programs you can explore offering, from traditional summer internship programs to more full time type experiences. Here are a few common examples:

  • Summer internship. Short but intensive experience over the summer months when students have a break from academic requirements
  • Semester-aligned internships. Usually, part-time or reduced hours opportunities that span the course of a fall or spring semester, integrating work with their academic priorities
  • Rotational internship programs. These programs are designed to rotate interns through various departments or teams to provide a more holistic view of the organization and diversify an intern’s skill sets (for example an HR rotational internship may rotate an intern through talent acquisition, learning and development and compensation). This is especially useful for high-potential programs and enables interns to better select a specialization upon completion.
  • Inclusive internship programs. Designed to promote diversity and inclusion, an inclusive internship program generally focuses on providing skill-building/employment opportunities to underrepresented groups/demographics.
Alex Link
By Alex Link

Alex is a HR Director for a Fortune 4 organization with a passion for developing the leaders of tomorrow. He has a Masters of Science in Human Resources and Labor Relations and has extensive experience in HR, Leadership Development, Talent Management, Learning and Development, and more. When not focused on helping people realize their career aspirations, he enjoys playing guitar, reading sci-fi fantasy novels, relaxing with his wife, and playing with their two young children.