Internships have the potential to go horribly wrong. Students think they are signing up for valuable work experience with a modest paycheque and instead find themselves being free labour doing odd jobs or making coffee for free.
Unpaid internships have been common practice for years at some major companies and organizations. In fact, lobbyists estimate between 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians work for free. But there has been mounting pressure to change this. Earlier this year, the Canadian Intern Association raised concerns over proposed regulations that would allow federally regulated workplaces to hire unpaid interns fearing the proposed guidelines are a recipe for exploitation.
In provinces like Ontario, unpaid internships are almost always illegal unless they are in exchange for an academic credit. A crackdown by Ontario's Ministry of Labour forced some prominent companies such as Bell Canada to end their long-standing unpaid internship programs.
With all the negative attention around internships, companies may be tempted to shy away from the idea, but this is a poor business decision. The investment you make in internship programs can provide a tremendous return for the company and the student, so it should not be overlooked. You cannot look at an internship as free labour or simply supporting the career aspirations of a young person.
Companies need to view internships as an effective recruitment strategy for talent and an ongoing pipeline of potential employees.
Instead, companies need to view internships as an effective recruitment strategy for talent and an ongoing pipeline of potential employees. That's why Aercoustics launched a paid internship program which places a third-year engineering student in the company for a period of 16 months before they return to university to complete their final year. The result has been mutually beneficial. Students get the experience they need to help start their career and gives us a competitive advantage by identifying and securing new talent.
But setting up an internship program is more than just hiring a couple of students. Like any HR program, you need to have objectives for both sides to be effective. Here are five steps that can help you define a meaningful internship program:
- Assess needs, resources and supports: Before creating an internship, you need to have a plan to ensure you set the interns up for success and benefit from an internship. Determine the needs in your office and identify where an intern can help, where they would sit in the office and how your team can support them. Get everyone on board from the top down to ensure you have the interns feel welcome when they arrive and get support. Assign a coach to guide and mentor the intern. Schedule performance reviews on a regular basis to ensure they receive feedback along the way.
- Determine length and compensation of internship: Know how long you need an intern and how much you can afford. Keep in mind that an intern needs to stay with your company long enough for them to gain useful work experience and for you to evaluate their capabilities. If you wish the intern could stay longer than their term, that's a good sign that you may want to hire them. Research appropriate compensation. Do your due diligence and ensure you are offering an internship that respects the law and your interns. Good quality candidates should not be expected to work for free.
- Be upfront about goals and expectations: From the beginning, ensure both the employer and the intern are on the same page when it comes to understanding responsibilities, pay and duration. If an intern knows the expectations, they will be more motivated to work.
- Leverage former interns to find new ones: You will find interns you want to hire and you can enlist these former interns to help recruit new ones. Prospective interns can ask questions of former ones so they know to expect. Your former interns can offer a fresh perspective to candidates, answer questions and serve as an example of the potential that comes with the position.
- Treat them like full time employees: Give interns responsibilities -- not titles -- by identifying tasks that interns can own. This will provide insight into their capabilities and will give them an opportunity to broaden their skills beyond what they learned in class. Trusting them and treating them like a member of the team will allow you to "test drive" the potential employee and help interns feel more engaged. It will also give them a snapshot of working at the company.
Take time to review and evaluate the program on a regular basis to ensure it is delivering results for you and the intern. You may need to tweak it to make it fit for your company.
Recruiting young talent takes time but a paid internship that offers good opportunities for young people will attract quality applicants and streamline the hiring process. There will be time invested upfront to develop the program and mentor interns, it can yield great returns. And by attracting strong candidates to join your team, it can provide fresh ideas to help take the company to the next level.
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Be willing and open to learn anything. Take the lead in establishing goals with your boss or manager. If they don’t have formal goals, let them know that you would like to set weekly and monthly goals and that you are interested in being given increasingly complex work. This is the only way you can measure your impact and contributions. Finally, identify specific skills you’d like to develop during your internship. Use these to guide your goals and your time on the job. These skills are what you’ll be selling at future job interviews.
Once you are given initial assignments and learn more about the needs of the company, go above and beyond to solve problems and make decisions. Whether it’s staying late to help a team make a deadline, picking up a supply on the way to work, or bringing a connection or resource to the table, they can improve outcomes and positively impact the work being done. The more you show the company the quality of your thinking, your imagination and your passion, the more they will know how to best develop your gifts and talents.
An internship is not a college course, it is your job. Dress for the position you want, come to work on time, and communicate professionally. Better yet, treat your college classes with as much respect. Be ready to risk and to take on work that is outside your comfort zone. This is how you will grow. While you may have to do some menial tasks, you will get more substantial and interesting work if you demonstrate that you can take on more.
Who are the people in the company who can help you attain your professional goals? Whether the company has two people or 2,000, your ability to manage the relationship with the people within the company most dictates how you will do this outside of school. Ask to have lunch or coffee with company staff as you get to know them. In the same way that you need to get to know your professors personally, you need to forge a personal connection with the people at your internship. They will become part of your professional network as will the other interns with whom you work. Enrich their experiences by your attitude and your ideas.
Ask for a project that might take a week or two to complete. It could be a strategic report, it could be recommendations for building an app, it could be organizing and running a focus group with other students. The key is that you have complete ownership for this from A to Z. The more of these projects you are given to manage, the more experience you will have overseeing an entire process.
Be impeccable with your follow through. Summarize meetings in emails. Clarify what you don’t understand. Pick up the phone, go into someone’s office and have a conversation and approach each assignment with a quality mindset. That doesn’t mean you have to over think what you are doing, it just means you have to use your judgment to accomplish your outcomes within the timeframe needed with the highest quality effort possible.
Even if you are as shy as they day is long, ask your boss if you can run a meeting. It can be a virtual meeting on Google Hangout or an in-person meeting. Circulate an agenda before hand, get everyone’s input, assign roles and responsibilities to conclude the meeting and ask for a follow-up plan from each person. Meetings are the engine of effective output. When you run one yourself or learn from meetings lead by others, you’ll be prepared to make great things happen in your volunteer work, at your part-time job, in your group projects at school, and in your career.
Consider the perspective you would need to run a department at this company or even be the President or Chief Financial Officer. What might their day be like? What is their agenda and top priority? How does that filter down to where you are? These are questions that you can explore with the people in the company. Research as much as you can about the company and their competitors and you will have more to bring to the table.
Once you have been at the internship for a few weeks, think about your strengths and weaknesses and how you might best use them on the internship. I once had an editorial intern who hated editorial work once she got involved with it. We switched her focus to marketing and she was hired a year later right out of college with a marketing firm in Los Angeles.
You should leave your internship with several examples of real projects and outcomes that you’ve completed or contributed to that you can share in a job interview. On day one, start a log of all the projects you’ve completed, skills you’ve acquired, and new people in your network.
Follow Steve Titus on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SteveT318