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How to Start an Internship Program: 6 Steps to Success

April 14, 2020
Ben Siegel

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.

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

Close-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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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