August 22, 2018

Does Your Internship Program Fail to Teach Your Interns?


What do interns mean to your business?

While each company has its own view of interns, and each intern is a unique individual, it’s important to remember that your interns are real-life students. When they’re wondering whether to accept your internship offer, their most important concern is: “Am I going to get real-world experience and exposure, or am I going to get stuck filing papers and doing coffee runs for the duration of my summer?”

You want to make sure your internship program provides students with the former, rather than the latter.

Intern vs. Coffee Runner

While some companies are prepared to teach their interns through hands-on experience with real projects, other businesses fail to assign their interns tasks they can actually learn from. One major, if common, faux pas is assigning interns busy work. While some may think this is okay, it generally gives interns the sense you were never actually prepared for them.

To ensure your interns are really interns and not just glorified gofers, make sure your program incorporates the following elements:

  1. Intern evaluations: Sit down with your intern and have a real conversation. Ask them what they’ve been learning, or if they’ve come across something new they want to explore within the company. You can even solicit their ideas for adjustments to the program. Communication is key between you and your intern.
  2. Project/task evaluations: You’ve given your interns real tasks, but will you see any results? It’s important to only assign tasks the intern can reasonably accomplish given their own skills and the time frame of the program. Regularly check in to evaluate how far the intern has come, and be sure to note any improvements you see in them over the course of the assignment.
  3. Exposure to the business: Don’t keep your intern cooped up in a cubicle all day. Give them regular “discovery days” where they can explore different departments and take part in new projects.

You Know What They Say About Assuming …

Some of your company’s daily processes or protocols are second nature for you and your employees by now, but that’s not the case for your interns. The essence of running a successful internship program lies in never assuming an intern has prior knowledge of workplace tasks or processes — unless they specifically say they do.

Remember: This program is a learning experience for your intern. If you dump a deluge of information on them, you will only overwhelm and intimidate them.

To avoid making assumptions about your interns, try incorporating these components into your program:

  1. Pretests: Before you bring a prospective intern on board, have them take a pretest to get a feel for their level of industry-relevant knowledge and experience. This isn’t a pass-or-fail situation. Rather, the results of the pretest will help you prep your team and give you an idea of the kinds of tasks you can comfortably assign your intern. A pretest can include personality questions, questions about the company, problem-solving assessments related to the role, and other relevant evaluations.
  2. Pre-projects: You may also want to start your intern with a small project similar to the work they will be doing during the rest of the program. Provide some high-level direction as to how you want the task done, but be sure to give the intern a measure of freedom. This will give you an idea of the intern’s resourcefulness, creativity, and level of background knowledge.
  3. Shadowing days: Prior to your intern’s first day, have them come in for a shadowing day. This will hep both the intern and your employees set realistic expectations for the program to come.

Don’t Dictate — Mentor

Mentoring your intern is crucial for their learning, exposure, and overall experience. Internships are meant to offer insight into the working world. That’s a lot to take in for a student, but they are willing to put in the work to gain that experience — which they can only do with the help of a good mentor.

How do you know if you are really mentoring or just dictating tasks? Take a look at these tips:

  1. Make time for questions: Don’t just give your intern a yes-or-no answer. Offer explanations so the intern really understands the answer.
  2. Invite them to meetings: Have the intern sit in meetings or conferences with you. The professional world is new to them, and the more information they can take in, the better.
  3. Have regular one-on-ones: While afternoon small talk is good, make sure you are carving out time each week to have real one-on-one conversations with your intern. Don’t be afraid to build a personal relationship. You and your intern may become valuable business connections for one another over time.
  4. Teach them: Walk your intern through the company’s strategies, innovations, and problem-solving approaches. Encourage the intern to think critically and try to solve challenges on their own, when possible. This will ensure the intern walks away with more than just the knowledge of how to scan papers and enter data.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Oleeo blog.

Jeanette Maister is managing director of the Americas for Oleeo.

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Jeanette Maister is a global talent acquisition technology leader with extensive experience in global talent acquisition, applicant tracking systems, recruiting technology, recruiting metrics, and recruitment processes. She is recognized for driving growth and helping clients transform their recruiting efforts.