The Essential Guide to Building a Successful Internship Program: A Q&A with Talent Consultant Karin Knutson

Jill Monte - Content Specialist ·

Internships are still very much alive despite today’s economy, which is good news for students and employers alike. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), making the shift to a virtual space is the most common adaptation employers are making to their internship programs.

In this blog, you’ll hear from Karin Knutson who runs an expansive internship program across 8 states in the U.S. The program gives students experience in the workforce development industry, and in turn, her company is able to create a pipeline of talent. To date, 20 interns, some of whom are pictured below, have been hired into full-time positions, with more on the horizon.

Although some organizations have slowed down their pace, number or format of corporate internships, there is hope of a rebound for intern opportunities in 2021 and beyond. Experts still agree that using internship programs to attract budding talent is a smart strategy. Employers who run successful internship programs are trying to keep pace with prior years and also attest that intern-to-hire practices greatly enhance the recruiting process.

Take Bank of America for example; their 2020 summer internship program hosted more than 2,000 summer interns –largely remote— for 10 weeks and by summer’s end, more than 1,000 full-time campus hires, including many interns, joined the global company.

Many people are surprised to learn that internships are a widely successful, yet surprisingly underutilized tool. As we anticipate a return to more normalcy and in-person opportunities, there’s no better time than now for companies to enhance their existing internship program or create a new one.

To learn best practices and how to create a successful internship program of your own, be sure to read the interview further down in this blog. But first, let’s take a look at how companies and students both stand to benefit from a well-run internship program.

What is the ROI of an internship program?

Low-cost labor. Interns are an inexpensive resource. A five-year study by the Internship Institute found that, “A qualified manager can gain 225 full 8-hour workdays of productivity in a calendar year by effectively utilizing college interns.” What a smart way to ease the workload of your staff! Interns are a great way to get a few extra pairs of hands on the job.

Close the skills gap. A recent survey by CareerBuilder showed more than half of the employers reported they couldn’t find qualified candidates for their open positions, and, of those employers, 35 percent said the challenge stemmed from having job requirements that were above entry-level and increasingly complex. Cue the internship … it helps a student close the gap with real-world experience, which also helps you or your fellow employers down the line when hiring.

Improve your tech and social media savvy. Interns often have a leg up on social media and cutting-edge techniques and technology. A study from the Pew Research Center showed that in the 18-24 demographic, around 75% use Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Besides social media trends and the newest tech gadgets and software, they tend to be up on current events and popular culture. Get ready for a jolt of energy and intelligence in your office!

Check out the infographic below that summarizes the ROI you can expect from an internship, as discussed above.

In this blog, we will explore what it takes to operate a successful internship program – one that adds value to your organization, helps build your talent pipeline, and improves your organization’s brand as an employer of choice.

Just to be clear, the definition of internship, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), is, “a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.” In addition, an internship is typically a semester (fall, spring, summer) in duration, may or may not carry credit, and may be paid or unpaid, based on the Department of Labor criteria.

One of the biggest changes in the intern landscape in the 21stcentury has been the creation of corporate intern programs by organizations who want to recruit students from local colleges, universities and trade schools. Many do this with the hope that interns will become part of their recruitment pipeline.

“It has been our experience that partnering with local universities and colleges to recruit students who are passionate about helping others and want to make a difference in their communities is an effective way to build our talent pipeline” said Karin Knutson, EDSI Talent Consultant. “Before our formal internship program was developed, we noticed that our interns were making a significantly positive impact not only on our programs and work initiatives, but on our staff and workplace culture.”

In the Question/Answer session that follows, you’ll learn how Karin’s corporate internship program came to life, and how you can use many of these ideas, tools and best practices to build your own program.

Q: Once you decided to create an internship program for your company, what were your next steps?

A: In order to begin building a guiding framework for a successful internship program, I:

  • Met with colleagues to decide what we wanted to accomplish in our internship program
  • Conducted in-person and online research to gather industry data
  • Discussed best practices with companies who had successful programs
  • Wrote a mission statement to help us stay focused on our goals
  • Created partnership opportunities that linked the program to schools and colleges, and enhancing community connections

Q: What are the benefits of an internship program from an employer perspective?

A: In my program, the boost to our culture is one of the biggest pluses. Team members who work closely with interns often share the positive and collaborative interactions that happen in the office while working on projects or simply having lunch. Companies that devote time and resources to finding, selecting and training interns are also looking for a return on their investment, which is mentioned earlier in the blog.

Here are some other employer benefits:

  1. Opportunity to select and develop your potential future talent pipeline for entry-level positions
  2. Significant cost savings related to recruiting, onboarding and training if intern is hired
  3. Ability to evaluate and screen potential employees prior to making a full-time position offer
  4. Provides good community outreach in support of local schools and the economy
  5. Expands customer base: interns use word of mouth to share their positive experience
  6. Culture is enhanced: staff enjoys sharing knowledge and appreciates intern contributions

Q: What are the benefits of an internship program from a student perspective?

A: An internship offers students valuable work experience that employers look for when they’re hiring graduates. It shows proactivity and dedication, and provides relevant on-the-job experience. More student benefits include:

  1. Skill Development – Interns gain a high-level of experience doing real work, attending workshops, conferences and meetings
  2. Industry Insight – Internships provide students opportunities and building blocks to help set the foundation for their career and explore different career paths
  3. Culture Enhancement – Interns are exposed to a healthy culture and immersed into the camaraderie of what it takes to work productively and comfortably in an office or at a worksite
  4. Contacts and Job Prospects – Interns learn to develop professional working relationships by interacting with professionals in their field of interest, potentially leading to valuable references/referrals during their job search
  5. Competitive Advantage – research shows that students who participate in internships have a leg up on their peers when it comes to applying and interviewing for jobs

Q: How can I design an internship program that meets the needs of my company and the student?

A: Prior to hiring an intern, an employer must understand how interns will fit within the company’s goals and culture. As in many inaugural programs, setting goals is crucial. You can start by asking a few initial questions:

  • What does your company hope to achieve from the program?
  • Is your company looking for short-term support on a specific project?
  • Does your company want to have a regularly recurring rotation of interns or seasonal support?
  • Is your hiring team hoping to attract potential new hires through this process?
  • Will there be a mentor and/or supervisor able to commit enough time to provide a positive experience for interns?

Discussions between company leaders, management and HR can create a consensus on goals and a specific internship program can be designed to best meet those expectations.

Q: What are the steps to a successful internship program?

A: Launching an internship program is an extensive process, but with the right planning and support, it can be a very rewarding experience for everyone involved. If you approach your internship program as a training ground for potential new hires, it can end up being an effective way to give talented students the opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute to the team.

The 10 steps outlined below offer a comprehensive roadmap to creating a successful internship program for your organization:

  1. Research other programs and best practices in order to ensure you have the knowledge and tools to start building a framework
  2. Designate an internship coordinator
  3. Recruit mentors or “intern ambassadors”
  4. Write a job description and decide pay and logistics: hourly wage, desk location, supervisor and primary responsibilities
  5. Create an Intern/Employer “contract” that includes long-and-short-term goals
  6. Develop a thoughtful onboarding process, including an internship orientation session where you set expectations. Include a 3-5 minute overview of different parts of the company, with a representative from each department
  7. Consider internship enhancements: special training opportunities, performance reviews, lunches with executives, social events, etc.
  8. Pre-schedule check in’s between the intern, internship coordinator and mentor/supervisor. These should be planned and documented meetings throughout the internship and an exit interview at the end
  9. Capture learning outcomes/assessment of performance through testing or surveys
  10. Encourage interns to spread the word about their positive experience (Glassdoor review, social media post, etc.) and promote your intern program on your website and social media

Q: How exactly do I go about partnering with educational institutions to recruit interns?

A: Colleges are usually eager to help students get internships and real-world experience. Many schools require students to complete an internship to graduate, and your company could be doing them a great service. Working with a college gives your company more visibility and brand awareness, which is helpful in recruiting. Contact your local colleges to find out how you can work together. Usually the Career Center or Alumni Office are good places to start.

Q: What are the 5 most important things an intern should do during their internship?

A: Here is a good start:

  1. Be proactive – seek out opportunities, don’t wait for them
  2. Seek growth – step out of the comfort zone and explore new things
  3. Challenge yourself – increase your knowledge and improve existing skills
  4. Communicate – ask questions and talk to as many people as you can
  5. Aim to meet and exceed expectations – make a great impression!

Building a solid internship program takes a lot of thought and effort, but with today's workload and tomorrow's workforce, starting an internship program is an outstanding way to facilitate success at your company.

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Check out the Highly Desirable Internships chapter in EDSI's debut book, Unquittable.

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