How to start an internship program

How to Start an Internship Program: 6 Steps to Success

For many businesses, recruiting new, skilled members of the workforce can be a struggle. How do you find qualified, committed candidates to fill entry-level positions?

One way is to develop an internship program. Such a program gives companies a chance to get to know potential employees while they learn the essential skills of your industry.

Still, knowing how to start an internship program isn’t always intuitive. Luckily, when you break down the steps, the process can become a smooth one. Let’s take a closer look at how to start an internship program that becomes a successful training program for qualified new hires.

What Is an Internship?How to start an internship program: Engineering interns working with a mentor

Before you get started, it’s essential to understand what exactly an internship is and what it’s not. An internship program is a work experience hosted by an employer that provides training, mentorship, and professional development to potential entry-level employees.

The exact structure of an internship program will vary from one employer to another. All are limited duration, but the specific length varies and is determined in advance, usually by the employer. Some internships are paid, and others are not. Some internships may even offer college credit.

Many job training programs exist, but internship programs are unique. To learn more about the differences between internships and other training programs, don’t miss these guides:

Successful internship programs are mutually beneficial for both the employer and the intern. Employers connect with the next generation of workers and have the opportunity to train them in essential skills. In a sense, employers can use internships as a prolonged trial period before any formal hiring process begins.

Meanwhile, interns learn the hard and soft skills necessary for success in that field of work and begin to network with potential future employers.

Sound like a good idea? Here’s how to get started.

How to Start an Internship Program Step by StepClose-up shot of a woman writing on a notepad

Establishing a new internship program doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be carefully considered. Knowing how to start an internship program will help your business hit the ground running when your first interns arrive.

1. Consider Legal Issues

The first thing any employer should do when setting up a new internship program is to consider it from a legal perspective. Just as laws protect employees and establish standards for fair and safe working conditions, the same is true for interns. If you have a human resources department, they can help.

In any case, be prepared to weigh decisions such as working hours, compensation, and work assignments from a legal standpoint. Consult the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) of the Department of Labor to learn about specific rules, regulations, and restrictions.

Legal issues most commonly arise when employers decide to offer an unpaid internship program. The FLSA establishes the requirements for paid and unpaid internships. Learn more with our guide to the pros and cons of unpaid internships.

2. Outline Essential Skills and Responsibilities

Once you’ve considered the legal issues, you’ll need to think about the specific learning experience and work assignments that the internship will include. These will combine to create your job description.

In general, you want to provide meaningful work experiences that build the skills employers look for when hiring. Students and recent graduates seeking an internship position will be most interested in opportunities that include real work.

Of course, there may also be some mundane daily tasks, like making copies or delivering mail. But the internship experience should also address the unique learning objectives that are necessary in the given field of work.

For more on the responsibilities your interns might tackle, don’t miss these ideas:

3. Choose Appropriate Internship Length and Working Hours

Employers determine the length of an internship, but there are a few factors to consider before you make this decision. Most interns are college students or recent graduates, so choosing start dates and end dates that coincide with the academic calendar is usually a good choice.

Summer internships, semester-long internships, or other lengths that fit conveniently around a college schedule will be more attractive to college-age applicants.

You’ll also need to decide whether interns are full-time employees or part-time workers. When making these choices, think about things like budget, learning goals, and intern schedule. All will play a significant role.

For more about internship duration, be sure to read these guides:

4. Develop a Mentorship and Evaluation System

Because learning objectives are key to any successful internship program, incorporating a formal mentorship program into your intern program is always a great idea. Mentors can help guide an intern, provide crucial feedback, and be the point person for questions or concerns that might arise.

All new employees benefit from regular feedback and strong role modeling, and mentors can provide this in a structured way. Effective mentors are approachable and insightful. They’re also typically the people who deliver evaluations during an internship.

Evaluations should be conducted at established intervals. They should provide quantifiable evidence about an intern’s progress towards the learning objectives, along with qualitative observations about his or her performance.

For more insights, be sure to read How to Incorporate Mentorship Into Your Intern Program.

5. Plan for Exit Interviews

Exit interviews are another integral part of an internship program. At the end of the internship, these interviews allow employers to assess the intern and provide some direction. They also allow the intern to provide feedback about his or her experience.

Employers should take exit interviews seriously as they’re an opportunity to learn about areas for improvement as well as areas that are particularly successful or appreciated. Employers might even extend a job offer or discuss future employment opportunities at this point.

For ideas on what to ask during an exit interview, see 5 Intern Exit Interview Questions Every Company Should Ask Its Interns.

6. Recruit Top Candidates

Once you have designed your internship program, it’s time to start attracting top candidates to fill your new positions. While this might seem like the easy part, it can sometimes be the most challenging aspect of the process.

Think about where candidates are likely to search for internships. Often, college students will start at their career center, so connecting with local colleges can help you establish these connections. This is also a good place to distribute copies of a job description that will draw in students.

Be sure to post about your new internship program on your company website as well. Any students who are curious about your company and its internship opportunities are likely to check there first.

Social media channels are also a place to provide information about your internship program. LinkedIn is a popular medium for connecting with young potential interns in a professional way.

One of the best ways to connect with top candidates is through the Scholars internship matching service. With Scholars, your business can filter potential interns by location, skills, major, and schools, and then contact them directly for an interview. As such, you can hire interns, attract top graduates, and find high-quality candidates for entry-level positions.

Planning an Internship Program: Set Your Company Up for Success How to start an internship program: Group of diverse young people at an office

Starting a new internship program may seem intimidating at first, but putting in the work to plan ahead will mean you’re ready to hit the ground running when your interns arrive. By adhering to the legal parameters, addressing learning objectives, planning formal feedback in the form of evaluations and exit interviews, and connecting with top candidates, your new internship program will be ready to roll out successfully.

For more help setting up a successful internship program and connecting with top candidates, consider the services of Scholars, where employers cut down on recruiting costs by 50%.

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