Making internships work

Effective program can help new graduates put degrees and diplomas into action
By Lucille Joseph
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/10/2003


aking internships part of an organization’s recruiting strategy yields measurable benefits to employers, helps young graduates enter the workplace and contributes to the prosperity of Canada’s economy.

There are lots of advantages in internships — for companies, graduates and the communities in which they work.

Obtaining any kind of entry-level work experience is getting harder as Canadian employers remain cautious about expanding workforces. Landing an entry-level job today is even more challenging than in 2001, in the aftermath of the dot-com meltdown and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Based on the latest labour data, the unemployment rate for Canadians aged 17 to 29 — the segment that is entering the job market — topped 11 per cent in August 2003. This is the highest unemployment rate for young Canadians since 2000, and nearly twice as high as the adult rate of 6.7 per cent.

But an effective internship program can help new graduates put their hard-earned degrees and diplomas into action, smoothing the transition from school to the corporate world. Internships also strengthen an organization’s bottom line and maximize Canada’s human resources potential.

Internships remain a somewhat nebulous concept in the recruiting world. The word is often a euphemism for unpaid labour, while “intern” can refer to anything from high school student volunteers to medical doctors in training.

To structure an internship program that gives interns the opportunities they need, consider these important elements:

•the duration of the internship;

•workplace responsibilities; and

•performance evaluations, including coaching.

Companies that incorporate interns into the workforce often develop HR procedures to ensure that the benefits of internships cascade throughout their organizations.

Job design

While an intern’s responsibilities can vary greatly, the position should be structured to start at the entry level, with the ability to expand in scope as the internship progresses. It’s important that interns don’t replace full-time jobs or other types of student-placement programs, such as summer jobs or co-op work terms. Internships should operate as an adjunct to an organizational chart.

It is essential that an internship is differentiated from other entry-level roles in an organization. Interns are here to learn and to gain their first work experience. To that effect, they agree to a series of trades-offs that sees them:

•earn a modest stipend;

•work for a short-term internship period; and

•forgo the usual corporate benefits of an employee.

In return, the intern’s organization benefits from a low-risk, cost-effective way to engage the talents and energy of a recent graduate. To recognize interns’ willingness to invest in their careers, organizations need to provide extra learning opportunities as part of an internship opportunity.

Since interns are outside of an organization’s formal structure, their responsibilities don’t need to be constrained by traditional roles and reporting hierarchies. Intern responsibilities can include participating in meetings, attending professional events, having access to senior executives for special projects, or working on other activities beyond the scope of typical full-time entry-level roles.

This enhances an intern’s learning experience and shows appreciation for the person’s efforts. It also communicates to other employees that an intern has a differentiated role in an organization, a position that includes unique advantages. People like to know where their colleagues fit into an organization structure. Differentiated access and learning opportunities for the intern convey an important message: this person is here to learn and gain experience. He is not a lower-paid version of the usual entry-level position.


Mentoring is critical to a successful internship. Designating experienced executives or managers to coach interns provides the helping hand that many young people need.

More than a boss, an intern’s mentor gives both supervision and perspective when it’s needed. Structuring such just-in-time nurturing is an effective way to develop newcomers. Coaches should provide their interns with workplace orientation, formal and informal opportunities to raise questions and receive advice, networking opportunities and most importantly, performance feedback.

Selecting mentors requires care. The wrong coach can be a demotivating influence that prevents interns from fulfilling their potential. The best coaches will accelerate their interns’ development and advancement. Such individuals have the time and inclination to accept a role model’s responsibilities. They also possess qualities such as fairness, firmness, patience, plus a penchant for open communication.

Performance Feedback

One primary objective of interns is to receive feedback on their performance. Unfortunately, feedback is the area most likely to be lacking in an internship.

As HR professionals recognize, some of the common reasons for not providing performance feedback include:

•reticence due to a lack of experience in appraising performance, since many coaches are first-time managers;

•reluctance to enter into a conversation that judges another; or

•being too busy with the day-to-day demands of the job.

It’s important that performance feedback is both formal and informal. Recent graduates starting their careers are calibrating themselves against their peers. With such a limited perspective, interns are as likely to underestimate their strengths as overstate their value. A coach can provide an objective view that encourages interns to self-evaluate and to advise what specific actions are needed to improve on-the-job performance.

Organization renewal

Companies can use interns to achieve diversity hiring goals, since internships represent a portal to an employer’s community. The graduates who seek internship positions represent Canada’s future — and your organization’s next customers, employees, even shareholders. Through the internship process, HR departments can learn how to develop and apply newcomers’ skills to corporate operations.

Adding internships to an organization’s HR tool kit also allows employers to address a broader corporate responsibility — developing Canada’s next generation of business professionals. Shaping the eager, raw talent of new graduates isn’t always simple, but it’s an investment that can pay financial dividends to corporate shareholders and professional dividends to all internship stakeholders.

Lucille Joseph is president and CEO of Career Edge, a non-profit organization that matches students with employers offering internships. She can be reached at

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