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How to Create an Internship Program That Works for Your Company

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Internships are powerful tools to recruit, develop and retain the young talent necessary for companies to thrive over the long run — but internship programs must be structured in an intelligent way for them to valuable for both sides of the equation, a panel of experts told local business representatives at the Louisiana Technology Park.

The panel, which was part of a recent Tech Park Academy event, was led by Melissa Thompson, Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s director of talent development. Thompson outlined BRAC’s InternBR program, an initiative designed to provide student interns with leadership and communication skills needed in the workplace while also introducing them to all that Baton Rouge has to offer young professionals.

The six-week program takes place in June and July and features skills-development workshops, service and social events, as well as a graduation ceremony. “You find them and we refine them,” Thompson says.

She was joined by Amanda Hamilton, vice president and director of sales and marketing at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., a Chicago-based insurance, risk management and consulting company with an office in Baton Rouge, and by Ashley Wolff, Gallagher’s early talent relationship manager for Southern regions. The company has a thriving internship program with more than 300 interns nationwide, including a handful in Baton Rouge.

The group held a lively discussion on the evolution of internship programs and offered best practices for creating environments where interns can thrive and grow into valuable members of a team. Here’s a recap of their advice.

Start Recruiting Early

Thompson says waiting too long to start connecting with potential interns will drastically limit the amount and quality of applicants for your positions. “Your best candidates are securing their summer internships in January and February,” she says.

Thompson suggests starting in August of the previous summer to get the necessary documents ready, have conversations with universities’ career services departments and visit classes of the key majors related to the jobs you’re looking to fill. That preliminary work can set a company up to start connecting with students in the early months of the year.

Wolff says Gallagher has moved its recruiting process back given the amount of competition for interns within its industry. She says the firm now starts connecting with interns in October or November the year before the summer internship, and tries to have offers to students before January.

Prepare for Their Arrival

Thompson says it’s surprisingly common for companies offering internships to forget to prepare a workspace or other essential office basics before an intern arrives. Moving them from desk to desk will almost certainly decrease their potential impact on your organization. Organizations need to supply their interns with the necessary tools to do the job.

Hamilton says that on an intern’s first day, Gallagher makes sure his or her desk is set up and includes some company-branded swag to “make it really special and fun” and to help the student feel they are part of the team. “They are little things but they’re big to them,” she says.

Choose Mentors Carefully

The panel agreed that interns need a mentor or supervisor to give guidance in order to maximize the experience. However, the most knowledgeable mentor in the world will be ineffective if he or she can’t actually carve out time to work with their mentee, Thompson says. She suggests that organizations develop a written structure that clearly spells out the expectations a mentor is expected to meet, including a schedule for feedback sessions and other key meetings.

Hamilton says selecting the right mentor is often a trial-and-error process that may require rotating out less-hands-on employees to ensure the organization has mentors who are willing to engage with interns. She says her company has found success in framing the mentor relationships as more of a privilege and a sign of leadership ability than a time-consuming burden.

“We announce to the whole office who our mentors are,” she says. “We tell them that ‘we’re looking to you as leaders and we’re looking to you to help improve these people as potential employees.’ ”

At the same time, Hamilton says it’s important to coach interns to not rely too much on mentors and to take initiative when necessary. If a mentor is unavailable, she says, the company stresses that it is the responsibility of each intern to seek out another employee to ask if there is an area where they can help. “That’s who the most successful interns are and the ones we end up hiring — because they are willing to do anything and everything, and it’s not just tied to the mentor,” she says.

Show Them the Money

While standards can vary by industry, organizations should offer some compensation for interns, the panelists agreed. For its two-year program, Gallagher pays $15.25 per hour at 36.5 hours over each year’s nine-week period, Wolff says. The company also flies each intern to its home office in the Chicago area.

Thompson says that even organizations that can’t pay much can assist with other expenses like parking or meals.

Keep Them Engaged with Real Work

Including your interns in the daily life of your workplace will keep them engaged and help them learn more quickly than they would otherwise. That can include simple steps such as allowing them to quietly observe a client meeting or to tag along for a lunch with colleagues. “They want so badly to be part of the team, to feel they belong and are doing worthy work,” Thompson says. “They do not want to get your coffee.”

The panelists agreed that it’s also vital to give interns regular feedback and opportunities to share their experiences and perspectives. Thompson says BRAC has a weekly feedback session with its interns during which they can share what they’re working on, what they’re proud of, what they have questions about and any projects they’d like to be a part of. “It makes them reflect during the process on what they're learning and what they haven’t learned yet,” she says.
 

Stephen Loy