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Internships as Worker Retention - A Matter of Quality

Recently,  local policy group, The London Institute published an excellent piece advocating the need for local employers and post-secondary institutions to work together to create more opportunities for co-op placements and internships.  This article argued – rightfully so – that internships provide opportunities for new professionals to establish the skills and networks needed to pursue meaningful employment in London rather than leaving the local economy. 

The London Institute piece includes the argument that “firm, visible, internship programs… give students practical work experience, allowing them to apply their knowledge to real-world and local problems”.  While this is certainly the intention of a good internship placement, all internships are not created equal – that being said, not all interns are created equal either (I’ll write more on this in a future post). 

When providing any kind of opportunity for new professionals, be it an internship program, a succession planning initiative, or professional development opportunities, I advocate strongly for a principle of quality over quantity.  Internships should be opportunities to attract, grow and retain talent in your organization.  This means that we need to move past this mindset of internships as rotating doors of students and graduates who come and go within the span of a few months.  This means asking some very fundamental questions about internship and co-op placements such as:

How long will the intern be with our organization?

I’m going to come out and say it: if you answered “3 – 6 months”, then you answered wrong.  If you answered “one year”, you are getting closer.  If you answered “for several years” congratulations, you win the prize.  For those of you who are confused, I am in no way advocating that internships need to last for more than a year.  Rather, I am suggesting that if you are truly committed to developing and growing talent through an internship program, you should plan for the possibility of hiring your regular staff from your intern pool. 

So what is the ideal length?  I would suggest that the perfect length is the minimum length of experience required for an entry-level position with your organization.  This comes back to the principle of planning to be able to hire from your intern pool.  If the placement doesn’t provide your interns with the minimum experience to pass your hiring process, then you will have invested months of time and resources into someone who is guaranteed to leave the organization. 

If your internship program doesn’t provide enough experience that you would consider hiring someone who has completed it, then chances are nobody else will hire that person either.  Especially considering that on-the-job training is rapidly being replaced by co-op and internships, if you are truly interested in developing local talent, then you need to commit to a program that is more than a rotating door. 

What work will the intern be doing?

If your interns’ assigned tasks are “whatever comes up”, then may I kindly ask why you have an internship program at all?  No organization would create a permanent position without a business case or at the very least, a clear idea of what work would be done in that position.  Yet for some reason, many organizations bring on students and interns without planning what work the position will entail.  Just as bad are “special projects” that have little to no bearing on business objectives and are essentially busywork that nobody else wants to do.

Again, we come back to the principle of providing the experiences that you would expect an entry-level candidate to have.  If you would expect an entry-level candidate for a position in your organization to have managed a project or a case file, then your intern needs to be given the opportunity to do just that. 

With this in mind, I recognize that these placements are training and development opportunities so it would not be reasonable to expect someone fresh out of grad school to be conducting contract negotiations with high level clients.  That being said, there is no reason that, for example, a client relations intern shouldn’t be asked to help prepare supporting documentation, and sit in on meetings with the client as a learning opportunity.

Why would you invest time and resources into a worker whose work products do not tangibly further your business objectives?  Ultimately, the work an intern does needs to be a two-way street.  It needs to provide exposure to real-world problems and activities that will provide a learning opportunity, but it also needs to contribute to the goals of the organization.  This arrangement will not only develop talent, but will also demonstrate to new professionals the value that they can contribute to your organization and encourage them to stick around.

Why do we want an intern?

Hopefully you will have started to see a pattern by this point.  I’m going to once again come back to thinking about whether or not someone coming out of your internship program would be qualified for an entry-level position with your organization.  This should be the purpose of an internship program: to attract, train and retain talented young professionals.

Young professionals are workers and people – not pawns or marketing tools that should be used to demonstrate that you care about your community.  The purpose of bringing in an intern should be to provide a career opportunity to that person and to bring new blood into your organization.  If you are looking at your interns as anything other than a potential asset to your team, you are doing them, and yourself a great disservice.

The reason you should want to bring an intern onto your team is to capture the perspectives, ambition, talent, and hunger (literal and metaphorical) that recent graduates can bring.  These young professionals are looking for an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge they have spent years of study developing.  There is no reason that an internship should be anything other than a mutually beneficial arrangement in which young professionals can cut their teeth on meaningful projects, and host organizations gain the opportunity to shape an already motivated, skilled employee

In closing

I could not agree more than visible internship programs that give new professionals opportunities to transfer their skills and knowledge into real-world applications.  They are great ways to build local economies and encourage recent graduates to stay in town instead of leaving.  That being said, at the end of the day, people will always leave the city for areas where work is abundant.  Internships may keep grads around for a year or two, but if there is no future for them post-internship we are only delaying the inevitable.  The goal should not be to simply increase the gross number of internships, but rather use them as training groups for future hires and increase the net number of jobs in the area.