Training: Interns Are Worth the Time and Treasure If You Do It Right

This past summer, the son of a friend of mine got on an airplane and left southern California to work at an aircraft parts company in Indiana. He spent the first half of the summer working with a group of other interns in the warehouse. The second month he snagged an assignment as an assistant to the president of the company, helping organize marketing spreadsheets. At the end of the summer, he stepped back on an airplane for the return trip west with a reference from a multi-million-dollar company and enough money to buy himself an Apple watch. His goal is business management, and his stint with the company president gave him valuable experience. The question is: what did the company get out of it? Did it optimize this young man’s skills and enthusiasm to benefit its operations? Did it get sufficient return on the price of that Apple watch and the ancillary expenses it invested in training, supervising, and evaluation?

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There are as many views on internships as there are companies that offer them. Some companies think of interns as cheap labor (particularly when the labor involved is manual), while others think that interns take jobs away from regular employees who need them, making internship programs bad for morale. A more constructive view holds that awell-developed internship program can be an effective recruiting and job fulfillment strategy. It can help fill temporary vacancies in the work force at peak employment time (summer in the construction industry, for example) while providing valuable experience for motivated job seekers looking to enter a field.

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The Sam W. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas suggests that companies should view internships as a win-win situation: a) the intern comes away with the feeling of having learned something of value and having been exposed to experiences he or she wouldn’t otherwise have had access to, and b) the company has something to show for the time, effort, and treasure it invested. A well-structured and well-managed internship program can help reduce turnover and training costs, provide opportunities for employers to evaluate and work with potential entry-level employees before offering full-time employment, and benefit an industry as a whole by helping develop an increased pool of candidates available to meet future need.

The biggest mistake that employers make when they bring an intern onboard (which I suspect might have been the case with my friend’s son’s abrupt ascension from warehouse worker to assistant to the president) is that they’re unprepared. Productive intern programs have goals and objectives. They have a coordinator who is responsible for managing the program from recruitment to post-internship evaluations. They set objectives for where they’re going, and strategies for how to get there. They are clear on how the program fits in the overall corporate staffing plan. They manage the program from the bottom up, consulting supervisory personnel to identify productive intern opportunities and develop job descriptions, because busy work is a waste of everyone’s time. They identify staff members who will work with the interns and take responsibility for their productivity. They decide on the mode and rate of compensation.

They settle housekeeping details in advance—length of internships, criteria for candidate selection, and evaluating job performance. They settle the nitty-gritty of workspace, phone use, mailbox, e-mail accounts, payroll forms, security clearance, parking permits, etc. They select key personnel who will assign projects, providing on-the-job training as necessary and generally functioning as the intern’s go-to person.

Once onboard, interns should be considered an integral part of a company’s work force and be expected to adhere to the same standards as full-time employees. They should be expected to learn the nature of the business and develop a big picture view of organizational goals and how they fit in.

The most productive internships are project oriented, with a fixed progression and a foreseeable end product. The best internships provide the opportunity for interns to work as members of a team, experience contact with a wide variety of company employees and interact with multiple divisions and departments. Communications skills are critical in today’s business world and internships provide an opportunity for students to apprehend industry standards and a chance to practice.

Don’t expect an intern to come spring loaded to do the job the first day. Be prepared to provide training and support, perhaps through a mentoring program. Orientation should include an overview of your corporate philosophy, perhaps a facilities tour, and introductions to staff. Opinions on paying interns vary, but the general recommendation is that for-profit companies are better served by offering compensation, either wages or a stipend, especially if the job requires particular skills such as surveying, computer skills, etc. (Be sure to square this with the bean counters so that all the tax bases are covered.) If you don’t pay, make sure your interns don’t walk out empty-handed when their internship is over. Tara Goodwin Frier, president and CEO of The Goodwin Group Inc. in Sharon, MA, suggests sending interns off with a portfolio of their work. “It shows you view your interns as professionals and want to help them further their careers. . . .”

Serious internship programs have solid recruitment plans. Junior colleges and technical schools are continually on the lookout for opportunities to provide students with real-world experience and will funnel students into internship programs they know will provide experiences that will support their coursework and enrich their academic programs. Most have advisory committees that include members of local industries, and companies looking for candidates for full-time employees are well advised to make contact and detail their needs. Most states have job development agencies and/or educational councils that can provide funding as well as expertise.

Be sure of your target candidates—are you looking for junior college and technical school students who may split their time between courses and internships, or four-year students to work during the summer? Perhaps you want to start earlier, with high school students. In addition to intelligence and skills, you’re looking for people who can do the job you need them to do, will fit into your corporate culture, and are responsible with a solid work ethic. One intern placement service suggests that employers be prepared to ask potential interns four basic questions:

  • How do you think this internship will fit with what you are studying?
  • What do you know about our business and the industry in general?
  • How have you worked to advance your skills outside of school?
  • What are your future goals?
  • What kind of people do you get along with best?

The final query might sound a little touchy-feely, but it’s the kind of open-ended question that allows you to get a sense of how a person thinks.

Last year, software developer HCSS awarded $50,000 in college scholarships to construction industry interns. The 2015 winner as Intern of the Year was Chase Ekstam, a student at Missouri State University who interned at APAC Central Inc. APAC serves on the university’s construction management advisory board and likes to take students whohave two summers left in their education. They rotate their interns every two weeks to give them a comprehensive view of company operations. Ekstam’s professors at Missouri State spoke of the value of the internship not only for Chase, but also for other students in the construction management program with whom he shared his experiences. Supported by his $14,000 HCSS scholarship, Chase completed his degree at Missouri State and did exactly what everyone hoped—and expected—he would do and went straight to work at APAC.