Building an Internship Program: 7 Ways to Make Sure Yours Is a Huge Win-Win

May 29, 2019

The summer between my junior and senior years in college, I had an internship with Sports Illustrated that gave me my first exposure to magazine work. Apparently, I liked what I saw.

That apprenticeship led to a full-time job at SI, which ultimately opened the way for me to become editor in chief of Stanford and Via magazines. And because my own internship experience had been so rich, I decided to pass it forward by starting an internship program, loosely based on the SI model, at Stanford and Via.

Both of those programs proved to be true win-wins: Interns had a chance to learn important skills (mostly, fact-checking), to build a professional network, and to get paid. In turn, the magazines got needed help, fresh perspectives, tremendous brand ambassadors, and a talent pipeline for the future (at Via, interns later returned as both full-time and part-time editors as well as freelance writers).

As the market for talent heats up, internships are changing, the Wall Street Journal reports. For one thing, more and more of them are actually paying these days. For another, more companies are adding programs — a survey of 2017 college graduates found 60% had had an internship compared with 50% just a decade earlier.

The growing interest in internship programs makes complete sense in light of the growing skills gaps and a tight labor market. And internships are truly mutually beneficial: Students and recent graduates get a chance to learn new skills and showcase their professional potential.

If you’re thinking about introducing an internship program, here are seven tactics to make sure it’s a can’t-miss success:

1. Make the program selective

You wouldn’t give just anyone a job with your company, so why would you give just anyone an internship? Investing the time and effort to attract and select  talented interns will pay off 1) because your summer hires will be able to handle more ambitious assignments and 2) because your program will become a magnet for future candidates. In fact, some of our star interns at Via were recommended by earlier interns. Of course, you can expand your pipeline by advertising your program on LinkedIn and letting interested candidates apply right there.

At both Stanford and Via, we reviewed resumes and work samples and then interviewed the most promising candidates. At Via, we asked potential interns what they liked about the magazine and what, if anything, they would change. Asking candidates about your products and services will give you a window into their ability to think critically and their desire to work specifically for you. We also asked what they hoped to get out the internship to get a sense of how realistic they were and how hard-working they were likely to be. Other questions that will shed light on the qualities you’re looking for include “What are you passionate about learning” and “What’s an accomplishment you’re most proud of.” Overall, we were using the interview to assess their smarts, enthusiasm, and commitment to pursue a career in our field.

Success led to more success: As young magazine wannabes saw where our former interns were getting full-time work, more and more of them applied for a chance to intern with us.

2. Give interns real and meaningful work

Never ask an intern to get coffee.

Never.

If you’re hoping to create a strong talent pipeline or just get some new viewpoints, asking interns to be coffee caddies is a surefire bust. If you want professional work from your interns, treat them like professionals. It’s that simple.

And coffee — or photocopying, lunch-wrangling, or other intern degradations — misses the incredible opportunity that your company could be seizing by giving interns substantive assignments.

Companies want to know if their current interns can help with their long-term needs and there’s no better way than asking them to do the same work their full-time colleagues are doing.

At Sports Illustrated, my fellow intern, Craig, and I were asked to fact-check cover stories, breaking news, and bonus pieces (the in-depth, long-form article at the back of the magazine each week), just like the staff reporters. A writer at SI pulled Craig aside at the end of the summer and said he had been startled to learn that Craig was not a full-time reporter.

3. Invest in training

Craig and I were each given our own office, manual typewriter, dictionary, and unlimited supply of red pencils at SI. But nothing the magazine gave us proved as valuable as its extraordinarily high standards, which applied to every aspect of its production, including fact-checking.

During my summer at SI, I had a veteran fact-checker, Connie, who worked closely with me for my first couple of weeks and then checked in every day thereafter. She was clear on expectations and processes and even assessed the editors I’d be working with each week (“Best to see him in the morning before he goes to lunch,” she knowingly advised one week).

All of that institutional knowledge was in Connie’s head. At Via, we created an intern binder that included documentation for our fact-checking standards and procedures. Interns should also have easy access to expectations, goals, and deadlines.

In addition, interns can nearly always benefit from an opportunity to shadow a veteran employee to see what secrets and insights an old hand brings to the same work. At Via, we required interns to sit in and contribute at the same meetings for manuscripts, headlines, and cover selection that the rest of the editorial staff attended. Finally, consider giving your interns access to the training — onsite classes, online courses and webinars, personal coaching — that your full-time staff is given for similar work.

Often the training you provide will be the education your intern can’t receive in school. A year after I graduated from college, I received a phone call from Crissy, the woman who ran the Bull Pen, SI’s fact-checking department. She had to hire five reporters in a hurry and she wanted to bring me aboard, in part, because I was already trained.

4. Create camaraderie between interns

Sports Illustrated put Craig and me in adjoining offices and we compared notes frequently during our internship summer. Later, we both came back to the magazine to work full time. And though we now live at opposite ends of the country, Craig and I are still regularly in touch with one another.

While you can’t necessarily program your interns to become lifelong friends, you can have team-building experiences inside and outside the office. Craig and I both played for the SI softball team in Central Park.

Meetings, team lunches, and happy hours can also build connections between your interns, as can a project where they need to collaborate with one another to succeed. Maybe you have the budget for even grander experiences — trips to the ballpark or cultural attractions, dinners out with senior staff. At Via, we even held intern alumni meet-ups to build camaraderie between different cohorts of interns.

5. Provide broader exposure to your business

During my junior year in college, I would wake up in the middle of the night, overcome with anxiety — is journalism the right place for me? Senior year, I slept like a baby. In large part, my internship with SI had calmed my fears. I knew I’d find a home in journalism.

An internship can be a remarkable window into a field or industry that allows young people a chance to figure out if they can see themselves in your business for a career. One way to deliver a broader view of your business is to hold a series of executive lunches at which senior people from different departments talk to interns about their roles and the role of their department or division. Craig was in an internship program run by the American Society of Magazine Editors and it included weekly lunches with the leading lights of the entire industry. That kind of broad education may not always be available, but your company’s leaders will always be well versed on industry trends and your competitive set.

The National Association of Employers and Colleges points out that these get-togethers are also good for your company. “For you,” says a NACE article on best practices for internship programs, “having your executives speak to interns is another way to ‘sell’ your organization to the interns and get your executives invested in (and supporting) your program.”

6. Give — and ask for — candid feedback

Before your interns return to campus or to the hurly-burly of the job hunt, make sure you sit down and give them the same kind of constructive, considered feedback you would give any other employees. It may be the biggest takeaway an intern will get.

At the same time, take advantage of the interns’ newbie perspective. Ask them what felt most valuable about the internship? What should be tweaked, overhauled, or jettisoned outright? What is it about your processes and products that they liked, and what didn’t they particularly care for?

7. Stay in touch

Once your interns have finished their stay with you, reach out to them on a regular basis. Put them on the distribution list for your company e-newsletter or push company announcements or press releases their way, as you deem proper. Connect with them on LinkedIn before they leave.

At Via, we always put them on the comp list for the magazine and sent them holiday cards at the end of the year. Be available. If a former intern wants to pick the brains of someone in the industry about her next steps, raise your hand to help make the connection. It doesn’t matter whether those steps will lead your alumna directly to you or to someone else.

Final thoughts

An internship program, done correctly, can be an antidote to the looming skills gap that is growing across time, geography, and industries. It can also help refill your talent pipeline and give you a more youthful point of view. For the intern, the program may simply change their life.

One of the highlights of my first summer at Sports Illustrated was getting to fact-check two feature stories by Ron Fimrite, who was, in a stable of legendary writers, my favorite SI scribe. When I returned to campus in the fall and made my way back to the school newspaper, I was surprised to find a package waiting for me. Inside was a book titled Way to Go, a collection of Ron’s best work that included one of the baseball stories, “The Battle is Rejoined,” I had fact-checked.

To my sheer delight, Ron had inscribed the book: “From one SI man to another.” And less than two years later I rejoined the battle, becoming a full-time reporter at Sports Illustrated. For me, the internship launched a long, peripatetic magazine career. For SI, the internship provided them with a future reporter and writer who, when he returned, was able to hit the ground running. Definitely the way to go.

*Photo by monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images

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