Using Internships as Hiring Tools

Phong, a smart Vietnamese-American student majoring in accounting, has had three solid job offers this year, and she doesn’t graduate until May. Other students report increased interest from employers who, after many years of relative apathy, are now looking at campus hiring with vigor. Some of these organizations are fearful of losing their baby boomers to retirement and of not having anyone to replace them. Some are just trying to build bench strength as they grow and find that they need more managers than they have. A few are seeking foreign students to hire and then employ back in their home countries.

Because of this interest and the increased competition, it is getting more difficult to attract the best college graduates. Just a few weeks ago, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) released a report entitled “Job Outlook 2008,” which indicates that employers expect to increase college hiring by 16% during 2007-2008. And, this demand is spread across many majors, not just engineering and the sciences, but also for graduates in business, government, accounting, and communications.

It is especially hard to get your offer accepted. Today’s students are more challenging to hire. They are not particularly inclined to work for large corporations and would much prefer a smaller, entrepreneurial firm where they perceive they have a chance to make a difference. They are looking for organizations that are flexible, fun, and fair. They want challenges and they want to be paid more for what they do than for how long they have worked for you.

This puts challenges on traditional organizations and makes it hard to come up with an attractive offer or a good answer to the questions these students are now asking more and more, such as: “Why should I work for your organization, and what’s in it for me?” If the first time you have seen or spoken to prospective graduates is in the few months prior to their graduations, you are going to have a difficult time making the quality hires you are seeking. Organizations that have both a strong employment brand as well as a relationship with a variety of students on campuses tend over time to have greater success in getting students to say “yes” to their offers.

Internship programs have been around for decades and provide students with valuable work experience and skills. They also provide employers with the opportunity to assess the culture fit, work habits, and skills of these students so that offers can be made to the best ones. They allow students to learn firsthand whether or not their needs and interests will be met at your organization.

But, many corporate internship programs are poorly thought out and do not capture the hearts or minds of the intern. They are based on assumptions and habits of 20-30 years ago. Hiring managers often treat these programs as a way to get extra help at bargain prices or as a service to students who need some extra spending money, rather than as strategic tools to build a continuous pipeline of talent.

Programs that are not built on long-range strategic goals tend to be much less effective and become regarded as relatively expensive programs that do not deliver much to the organization. The NACE reports that the average employer converts only around 43% of interns to full-time employment after graduation. Looked at in another way, almost 60% of interns do not go to work for the sponsor of their internship.

In order to develop an effective internship program that entices and sells the organization to the most capable students and converts them to regular employment, organizations need to invest time and money in thoughtfully constructing a program. Here are some steps that will lead to a program that will be regarded as a success and produce most of the college graduates you need.

Develop a Strategic Foundation for the Internship Program

As you consider putting an internship program in place, you need to answer some basic but very important questions: What do you expect to get from the program? Do you want to develop a pipeline of potential hires? Do you want to provide a public service to students who need some sort of income? Do you want to have access to professors and their research? As recruiters, you should be primarily focused on developing a pipeline of the talent that is the most difficult for your organization to find and hire.

For example, if finding enough computer engineers is a problem, then encouraging new engineering students to major in computer engineering by offering them internships might be a very strategic way to solve that issue over time. It is also the way to build a business case for getting the funding you will need to advertise and support the program.

There may be secondary goals for these programs, but, to make financial sense, converting many of these interns to full-time employees needs to be the ultimate goal. At the same time, any human resource policies that inhibit conversions or that make it difficult to attract interns should be re-examined and rewritten.

A question that is almost as important as the ones posed above is when to start recruiting students for internships. Should they only be approached after they have declared a major, or should you start the program very early and provide the students some career guidance on majors your organization would find useful? Often, today’s students are unclear about what organizations are looking for and which majors are appropriate. Guidance early in their school careers, along with carefully designed internships, can be effective in creating talent pools that can be tapped 3-4 years later.

Structure the Program with Conversion in Mind

Surprisingly, many employers do not make conversion of interns a core piece of their intern strategy. They focus on providing students with real-life experience or with doing a service to their key colleges and universities in the hope that their benevolence pays off in future hiring. No one tracks conversions very carefully, and often no effort is made to hire the interns after graduation.

However, programs without specific hiring goals don’t achieve much. While they may get some local acknowledgement for providing work for college students, they lose a potentially great source of talent every year. I know of a company where they have had interns for more than five years and have not tried to convert any. In fact, the few that have expressed interest have been discouraged from applying, because this organization focuses on hiring experienced people.

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On the other hand, many organizations make the internship experience the primary entry door to new talent and provide the quality of program that encourages the best to apply.

Provide Students with Real Work That Is Exciting and Meaningful

Students who have suffered through boring internships are not likely to want to work for your company. While this is obvious, a large percentage of internship programs do not actively engage the students in meaningful work. The Gen-Y students you are recruiting today want to be part of project teams and want to use their skills to help the team accomplish its objectives. They do not want to work alone or on routine activities that, while necessary and perhaps even essential to the organization, are not developing the skills the students feel will help them in their careers.

I know of a finance student who was assigned to help a department controller. This involved collecting data, building a spreadsheet or two, and sitting through some very boring financial reviews. While this is actually what a controller does, and it is the kind of position the student might end up filling as a new employee, it was not challenging. It did not allow him to use the concepts he had learned in the classroom, and his manager was not a good coach. The experience was not positive, and the student went elsewhere. A little twist on the assignment, perhaps a project to look for ways to cut costs or something, combined with a better manager would have made this intern an easy conversion.

Assess the Interns Realistically and Coach Them Well

Students are used to fairly frequent feedback in the form of tests and professor comments. Gen-Y is a generation that has been mentored and coached throughout their youth, and they expect that at work as well.

Going into the work environment can be a strange experience because they suddenly get much less information on how they are doing. Interns want feedback, especially feedback that is constructive and is combined with coaching or development. Serious interns want to be part of projects that are important to the organization and that will stretch and motivate them. They need to get feedback on how their contributions helped the project or slowed it down. They need to know where their skills need improvement and where they are strong. Giving this kind of feedback is hard for almost all managers, but particularly hard to give to young people who are not employees. Managers of interns need to be carefully chosen and need to have skills at mentoring and teaching. Assuming that interns are just a pair of hands to help out an overworked staff is a common mistake and a fatal one when it comes to converting the students to full-time employment. Remember, the manager they have as interns is the model they will carry forth for all managers.

Make the Conversion Process Clear and Smooth

There may not even be a smooth process in place for making conversions from intern to employee. One firm I was talking to requires that each intern fill out an application, go through the normal interview process, and then be hired into an open slot that could also be filled with an experienced hire. Obviously, many interns are put off by the need to apply and interview once again, and many hiring managers would rather use that position for an expert rather than for a rookie.

Good programs waive the application and interview process. After all, these people have filled out some sort of application for the internship and have been assessed for weeks or months as interns. These organizations have also set up some structure or process to allow interns and college hires to fill positions reserved exclusively for them. A semiconductor firm that I am well acquainted with reserves 5-15 positions each year, depending on the economy, for college hires and conversions. The hiring manager has to pay the salary, but the head count is carried as corporate for one year.

Separate the Poor Performers and Maintain Contact with the Good Ones

If your goal is to build a useful pool of talent, performance assessment is critical to ensuring you have quality candidates. Each intern should get a progress report at the end of each year. Interns who are not performing well need to be told that and they should not come back for another year. I have talked to many interns who were uncertain about how they were perceived.

On the other hand, if the performance and fit have been good, your relationships should not only continue but grow. E-mail and other electronic tools can make staying in touch easy. A regular e-mail to all high-performing past interns, a newsletter or blog, and even an occasional phone call can make a huge difference in how they feel about your organization. Let them know if you want them back again or what the process of conversion looks like and what they can expect. Clear next steps, definite timelines, and objective feedback will lead to many more conversions.

Phong is considering a position at a small start-up of 30 people. She has turned down offers from some of America’s best corporations because they had never approached her until a few months prior to graduation. They did not have her trust nor did they make her see the possibilities and opportunities they have. They focused their offers on money and on their own reputations and what that would do for her resume. She was looking for a relationship, for learning opportunities, and for a chance to do something that would impact the bottom line. It would have been easy for these firms to reposition their approaches as they have much to offer, especially if they could have offered her an internship long before her graduation.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


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