8 Jan

How to create a great internship program, mentor great talent, and lose 20 pounds

By Erika Turan, APR

Senior Account Executive

In a previous life, I worked in the public relations and marketing department of one of Cincinnati’s largest companies. With more than 12,000 employees, 30 of them in the marketing department, there was plenty of work to be done. I volunteered to coordinate our department’s internship program, and learned an incredible amount about hiring great interns and running a program so it benefited both interns and our department.

It’s easy enough to say, “Let’s get an intern! He can create a master filing system! He’ll be a wizard with the coffee pot! He’ll teach us how to tweet!” But actually creating an internship that yields productive work, a great extra team member and a possible permanent hire takes forethought and planning. Here are a few hints to help you start an internship program, or make the one you have even better.

Cast a wide net

Virtually any size company, in any field, can provide an attractive internship opportunity. Then it’s a matter of fielding applicants. In Cincinnati, there are a few really big schools, and we always had lots of applicants from there. But we wanted a more diverse pool of interns, so we contacted every college in a 100 mile radius (dozens in all), and asked for contact information in the school’s career office. We then sent information about our program to all of them, and the applicants increased three-fold.

Really think about what kind of work an intern can support

Your internship program will fail you and your intern if you don’t outline ahead of time what kind of work you’re comfortable having them do, and how much of that work you think you’ll have in the next several months. Is it enough to fill 40 hours a week, or four hours a month? Can you train an intern to coordinate part of a major event, or do you just want someone who can help build a database? Plan all of this ahead of time so you attract potential interns who are interested in the work you have and have the skills to do it.

And in today’s age of Twitter and Facebook, beware of creating a situation that ends up being posted…

Set expectations among your own team

Make sure your intern(s) have a single supervisor. Telling an intern that “oh, just, you know, talk to the team if you get bored” means at the end of the day no one’s really responsible. So establish a single supervisor who sets up orientation, checks in with the intern frequently and serves as their boss. But presumably that supervisor also has a full plate, so consider establishing a mentor for each intern. It’s a great way to help rising talent in your own company develop their leadership and coaching skills, as well as provide your intern with additional guidance and support.
It’s also critical to make sure your own team knows what the intern is there to do (and not do). Seek feedback from the team on what kind of projects they’re working on that an intern could help with. Make sure you’re offsetting the “grunt work” with fun stuff too. It’s fine to ask an intern to help create an archive system of older projects, but also ask them to sit in on pitches from a new advertising agency.

Share with the group how you expect the intern’s time to be divided up, and who he or she will primarily work with.

Give your intern something to do on their first day

Oh, the dreaded first day. Sitting at a desk, fiddling with a computer, waiting for someone, anyone, to give you anything to do. Don’t do this to your intern. On my interns’ first day, I gave them an office tour, snapped a photo of them to hang on the office bulletin board and scheduled other members of the department to provide training on the email system, using designers and the print shop etc. I also asked each intern to write a faux news release about themselves that I posted next to their photo. It was a way to practice their writing, give them a task to complete and introduce them to the staff. Plus, some of them were pretty funny.

Make your intern feel welcome

When I was in college, I spent a semester away from my school in Indiana to intern in Philadelphia (which might as well have been the moon for a girl originally from Nebraska). The first day of my internship, I showed up to work on time and dressed in my best work duds. But the office seemed to have forgotten that I was starting that day. There was nowhere for me to sit. No one was there to show me around. After a couple of hours of uncomfortably trying to look busy, someone told me to meet with the marketing director, who proceeded to share with me that she’d missed the last two days of work because she was hungover. Um…cue the crickets.

It actually ended up being a great internship, and I loved every minute of it. But that first day was bumpy, to say the least.
Get your intern off on the right foot: a designated workspace, working email account, computer and phone, and scheduling time to spend with them on their first couple of days will make all the difference.

Unlike poor NBA star Blake Griffin, who did this internship with FunnyorDie.com…

Pay your intern. If you can’t pay them, investigate school credit.

If it’s even a remote possibility, pay your intern. You’ll provide them with much-needed extra money, and attract a larger pool of applicants. In today’s world of skyrocketing education costs and school loans that follow kids into their 40s, more and more need to devote non-study time to paid work.
If you can’t pay them, ask the local university what you can do to help your intern earn course credit for the time he or she is spending with you.

Check in with your intern frequently.

Unless the topic is sensitive or confidential, invite your intern to sit in on every meeting. Make sure he or she is invited to staff meetings, and set aside 15 – 30 minutes every week to sit down with your intern to ask how things are going, what they’re working on, and how they think the internship is going. Provide them with feedback on what they’re doing well, and if there’s something they can do better.

Expect a successful internship program to require an investment of time on your end. You’ll find the perfect intern, get him or her trained, and then it will be time for them to return to school and you’ll be right back where you started. But if you don’t invest the time to guide, train and mentor, you won’t have a contributing member of the team, and your intern will be miserably bored.

Set expectations up front.

Think about writing a little handbook for your internship program. If you’re setting up a program where you may have a new intern starting every four months all year long, you’ll be glad you invested the time into writing a guide they can each turn to. Include in it instructions on how to use various office equipment and software; a directory of team members; basics like the company address and phone number.

Make sure your intern knows when he or she is expected to come in and go home, how long their breaks last, what the dress code is, where to park, and who to call if they can’t make it to work.

As for losing 20 pounds? Well, the best hint I can offer there is to politely decline the endless parade of sweets and treats that make the office rounds. Or get an intern to become your personal trainer.