Five tips on how to set up a meaningful internship program

With the right parameters, internships can add major value for intern and employer

Unpaid internships made headlines again earlier this year after an advocacy group representing Canadian students raised concerns over proposed regulations that would allow federally regulated workplaces to hire unpaid interns. It was a continuation of a heated debate that saw Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz taken to task for suggesting young people should work for free in order to gain experience. 

Statistics Canada does not track unpaid internships but lobbyists estimate between 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians work for free. While this has been common practice for years at some major employers, it’s only now garnering negative headlines.

In 2014, prominent companies such as Bell Canada were forced to end longstanding unpaid internship programs after a crackdown by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour. And, recently, the Canadian Football League (CFL) came under fire for replacing paid employees with unpaid interns who are only given a nominal honorarium.

Gains to be had

While the conversation remains heated, it should not take away from the value of a good internship program. Eliminating internships is a loss not only to young people but also to the employer.  With the right parameters, both the intern and the company can benefit by supporting the intern’s career aspirations and as an effective recruitment strategy. 

Companies can do their part to provide meaningful internship opportunities for this demographic of experience-hungry people. Youth are seeing high levels of unemployment and finding a university degree no longer guarantees a job. Many soon-to-be or new graduates are told they need experience before they can be hired, but then they need a job to get experience. It is a frustrating cycle. 

Aercoustics Engineering has invested time and resources in providing soon-to-be graduates with valuable experience. It’s a small company but it still sees the value of investing in people in the early stages of their careers. In 2009, the company launched a paid internship program that places a third-year engineering student in the company for a 16 months before returning to university to complete her final year. 

The benefits have been twofold. Beyond providing real-life experience to university students, the program has been an excellent source of recruitment. In fact, Aercoustics has retained about half of the interns for permanent, full-time positions. And in a space as competitive as engineering, the internship program gives the company a competitive advantage when it comes to securing new talent.

For employers considering hiring interns, here are five learnings that can help establish a meaningful program:

Determine needs and the scope for the internship: Do not try to use an internship as a stop-gap to fill a vacant position for a short period of time. Identify the type of projects that could be assigned to an intern and the role he can play within the team. Make sure you have enough real work for them to do and use their skills appropriately. 

It’s also critical to determine how long the internship will be. It’s not fair to expect interns to work with the company indefinitely. Ideally, an intern should stay with the company long enough to gain useful work experience and so the employer can evaluate her capabilities.  

Treat them like full-time employees: From the outset, ensure both sides have a clear expectation of responsibilities, pay and duration. If an intern knows the expectations, he will be more motivated to work and may gain insight into what professional life may be like at your organization. To find quality candidates, don’t expect interns to work for free. Research labour laws in your province to determine appropriate compensation and to ensure the internship respects the law and the interns. 

Challenge them: Give them tasks they can own and excel at so they have a chance to learn skills beyond what they would learn in the classroom. An internship also provides an opportunity for employers to gain insight into their capabilities. Offering opportunities for professional development and growth will help to keep interns engaged and provide them with experience they need for their resumés. Give them the freedom to manage a task and encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone to achieve their goals. Their creativity and ability to collaborate may generate impressive results. 

Set up a support structure: Everyone in the company should understand why an internship is important, so make sure the program is communicated properly. Plan who will support and supervise an intern and where she will sit to ensure she is integrated into the office environment. 

Part of the learning process should be interacting with others in the workplace so interns should be as integrated as possible. 

Leverage former interns to find new ones:
Past interns can provide great word-of-mouth networking for your company. Enlist the help of former interns who are now employees to help recruit new interns. Include previous interns in the interview process so they can offer prospective candidates insight into what to expect and serve as an example of the potential that comes with the position. While not all the interns will stay with the company, they can be good references to help your recruitment.

One of the biggest challenges for businesses is looking beyond the “intern” title and treating them like full-time employees. But making an intern feel like part of the company and appreciating their contributions means they will be more comfortable, engaged and increases the likelihood of retaining them longer. 

Developing an internship program takes time and planning to make the most of this opportunity and offer interns a meaningful placement. And there should be time spent reviewing and evaluating the program annually to ensure it is delivering results. Employers may need to tweak it to keep up with company needs.

Good interns can provide great value to a company with their ideas, youthful energy and ability to embrace new technologies with ease. An upfront investment now to find the right intern can yield great returns in the form of long-term employees to add to a team. 

Steve Titus is president and CEO of Aercoustics Engineering in Toronto, a privately held firm that specializes in fostering innovation in acoustics, vibration and noise control. 

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