The internship is one of America’s most enduring professional institutions. Despite years of mockery by pretty much everyone and not to mention, the emergence of the gig economy which has clawed away at white collar America, the internship has not only survived, but thrived. In 2015, the internship has become firmly a rite of career passage.
In nearly two years running my own startup, which is based on matching jobseekers with the right jobs, I’ve pulled from years of experience in hiring and working with interns at other technology startups, as well as advice from fellow founders to develop an immersive internship program. Using these strategies to hire, vet, train, and manage interns have helped to make sure both parties leave the experience satisfied.
Create a consistent program
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Before you can hope to attract the best interns and create a lasting experience for them, you need to establish a program and stick to it season after season. This means determining things like pay, how many interns you’ll need per season, and what the general internship roles will be. Be honest with yourself about what kind of intern you’re looking for and how the tasks you’ll be giving them can match the interns’ ambitions in a way that can bolster your company’s brand to future employees. Otherwise, both you and the intern are in for a long fall.
According to Steve Levy, Founder of The Recruiting Inferno, a talent acquisition consulting firm, “You have to remember that discovering your next intern requires a lead time of one to two business quarters in which you’re not only identifying and developing relationships with prospects but wowing them with the short and long term possibilities of working together. This isn’t like ordering a meal via GrubHub and having it delivered 30 minutes later.”
Cast a wide net
Sourcing interns is harder than it first appears. In New York City, there is a wealth of young professionals but fewer great intern candidates than you would imagine, and this is the case in many urban areas. Consider getting creative by reaching out to many of the colleges in our immediate vicinity, as well as universities and MBA programs slightly farther away. For example, we work with the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School but not, say, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Wherever you are, develop close relationships with career centers or specific undergraduate programs in your area.
In New York, we have developed close relationships with schools like NYU (Stern, Wasserman and Polytech schools) and hire post on CareerNet, Columbia’s departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, as well as coding schools like General Assembly, which runs accelerated coding and product management courses. Exploit your connections with various alma maters, posting in portals like alumni communities and message boards. For example, we have a Princeton alumni who posts opportunities directly to the HireTigers network.
And since millennials are the mobile generation, explore different job-matching apps. Lots of these foster a lower-pressure hiring environment perfect for sourcing interns. Experiment with mail merges with undergraduate and graduate career centers and coding schools, using your rolodex of business contacts or friends and followers on social media. As a final note, some finalists might jump ship for a different gig at the last minute, so if you’re hunting for four interns to fill a class, finalize a list of five or six, so you have a contingency plan.
Vet with speed
When you cast a wide net, you need to draw it back in sooner rather than later. The best intern talent, whether it be engineering, business, marketing, content or otherwise, will get hired quickly. Once you locate interns, don’t hesitate to set up a short video call (15-30 minutes) as an introduction. In my experience, a quick elevator pitch to the candidate about your brand generates excitement about the prospect of interning. Even better says Levy, “Describe the challenging problems that they’ll be working on and how their solutions might impact consumers, society and revenues.”
Don’t waste time on a drawn-out hiring process. Particularly at a small startup but really anywhere on the corporate spectrum, time is so much more than money, and since many interns will be with you for only a season, it is more important to move them in efficiently than to protract the process for days or weeks. If you have winners and runners-up after a short series of video interviews, move forward. Pick the best and sprinkle those who accept throughout your team.
Go fast, but not in a hurry. It’s still important to evaluate your potential interns well in the short time allotted. Since many intern candidates will have similar work experience and skill sets, it’s important to determine whether they’ll fit with the employees around them culture and handle the tasks at hand. Determine what you value most in your employees, and apply that to your interns. When we hire at Switch, we look for qualities like ambition, energy, and agility above all else. We also like to see a dynamic intern class, and try to hire interns of varying ages/education levels, cultural backgrounds and with school majors.
Pay your interns. I have found that a consistent monthly salary — which we tier for post-grads, graduate students and undergrads — is an incentive for interns to come to the office every morning fully engaged to do great work. Trust me. It works. Advertising a paid internship also nets you more desirable candidates. No matter how life-affirming his or her experience is with your company, nothing talks like a direct deposit at the end of the month. Advertising a paid internship also attracts more desirable candidates and allows you to expect interns to become a serious, punctual and involved contributor to your workplace. A stipend empowers interns to go above and beyond the typical body-occupying-office-chair intern scourge.
Consider subscribing to an intensive, comprehensive one-day training period for each intern class. Interns are short-term employees, and therefore don’t need a week or weeks of training for their positions. However, they do need — and deserve — the company brass’s attention for that first day. For me, that means walking all of our interns through our entire company process and teaching them everything about the technology, from the abyss of the algorithm to the user experience challenges through our long-term business model.
It’s a head to tail dissection, even when most of them will be focusing on one corporate aspect for the majority of their internship. This allows them to apply critical thinking and participate in problem-solving across the organization. According to Levy, a critical piece of your intern program strategy is to pair each intern with a full-time internal mentor. “Think of it as a Big Brother or Big Sister – someone who knows the ins and outs of the company, how things get done, what ‘partnership’ approaches do and don’t work, which communication strategies are most effective – even something as nuanced as whether some higher up is a morning or evening person. The Devil is always in the details – and having someone to guide the intern on-site is vitally important.”
Integrate your interns at every level of the operation — and that starts with seating arrangements. If you walked into the Switch offices tomorrow, you’d probably have a hard time distinguishing the interns from the full-time employees. Particularly in the summer, when our small team expands 30% thanks to our summer intern class. We pride ourselves on creating an inclusive atmosphere, seen most obviously in the way interns are working side by side with the entire team.
Not only does this integrative seating arrangement gives interns unlimited access to our full-time team to shadow, ask questions and gain perspective, but it also continuously energizes an office where long hours are the norm. We also invite interns to join and contribute to company meetings, from our morning product stand-ups to our afternoon marketing catch-ups. They might be an intern by title but by contribution they’re considered to be an employee. This makes a palpable difference to your intern program.
Responsibility and versatility
Lots of supervisors talk the internship talk, but few walk the walk. More often than not, that leaves interns caulking the gaps in workplace productivity. However, you should always try to empower your interns to push themselves and the company forward. We try to empower our interns by putting them in charge of projects and allowing them to manage them to conclusion. This kind of approach almost guarantees you’ll get a more productive, higher-performance employee.
We also encourage interns to challenge us and themselves by working across departments and diving deep on a number of projects. During our recent three-month summer internship season, one of our interns developed hundreds of sales leads, researched data for marketing infographics and received a crash course in iOS engineering. This focus on versatility feeds the intern’s need for variety while also keeping the company a nimble and fast-paced unit.
Interns are no longer just the coffee toters, paper filers, and photocopiers of the corporate world. Their utility, benefits, and value have extended far beyond those menial tasks in this day and age. The ideal intern situation is one wherein both the company and its eager young workers learn something new at the end of the program. Give your interns the benefits and challenges they might expect working at a company, and you’ll both gain something of value from their time at your company.
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