Many companies treat internships like extended job interviews. When it comes time to hire, interns are often the first candidates they consider.
Companies that hire interns typically do so for the same reason: it's a low-risk way to test out prospective talent. At Liggett Stashower, a midsize advertising and public relations firm based in Cleveland, interns are advised to treat their summer internship as a two-month job interview.
"It's an opportunity for them to showcase their talent, and for us to assess their skills to see if they would make a good future employee," says CEO Mark Nylander. And it's no secret what's at stake at the end of the internship program. Liggett currently has 11 full-time staff members who were former interns, and has a track record for hiring new interns each year.
So what does it take to turn an internship experience into a full-time job offer? What qualities are employers really looking for?
In general, the interns who are successful at landing full-time staff positions are those who seek out programs where there is opportunity to do real work, according to Matthew Zinman, founder of the Internship Institute, a Newtown, Pa.-based organization that provides employers with resources to implement successful internship programs.
"A lot of the top students are smart enough to know that they can get a better experience at a smaller company," Zinman says. "These students ask themselves, 'Is it worth having a big company name on my resume versus what may be the greater opportunity with a smaller, less-known company on my resume?"
Companies typically look for interns who possess the very same qualities as their best employees. "These students are usually self-motivated to take initiative and are the go-getter type," Zinman says.
But the onus is not just on interns to perform. According to Roberta Chinsky Matuson, founder and president of Northampton, Mass.-based Human Resource Solutions, employers must also make an effort to show they are interested. Companies that have gained some of their best employees through their internship programs, "have a plan when they hire their interns and they really take the time to welcome and integrate them into the organization," Chinsky Matuson says. "They treat the interns as if they are regular full-time employees and not just temp workers, and they get them involved in projects that aren't just administrative in nature."
At Liggett, interns are put on client projects right away, and are expected to work together as a team as well as pursue a project of their own. "We try to limit the mundane tasks," Nylander says. "We want it to be a valuable experience for our interns, so we make sure they are doing work they can learn from and that will help them build their portfolio."
Observing how an intern handles an important project and interacts with other employees around the office can tell an employer a lot about whether that person will ultimately be a good fit for the company. And, according to Chinsky Matuson, interns should take notice of how others carry themselves around the office and try to fit in.
While it is important for companies to provide interns with a meaningful experience, interns must also go into the job with realistic expectations. "Interns should expect that it's unlikely that they will be in a meeting with the firm's largest client on the first day," Chinsky Matuson says. At the same time, interns need be proactive if they want to be memorable. "Interns should make sure to ask for a project that they can actually make an impact on, something that will be their legacy when they leave," she adds.
Finding a way to make a good lasting impression at an internship is crucial, but it can also be challenging, especially when interns are working alongside five or 10 other of their peers. Zinman says that a good way for interns to get an employer to remember them is by maintaining contact after the internship has ended.
"Find ways to continue to cultivate that relationship," Zinman recommends. Often, it is the interns who have made an effort to keep in touch on a regular basis that come to mind first when a position opens up in the future. In the case of Liggett-Stashower, there was a situation where one of the firm's interns graduated and accepted a position elsewhere because there weren't any jobs available at the time. "But she stayed in touch, and we later hired her," Nylander says.
In the end, though, employers should also remember that some of their interns simply may want to move on and have other experiences. After all, an internship is also a chance for the student to explore their interests, so companies shouldn't take it personally if a former intern decides not to accept a position. As Chinsky Matuson points out, sampling lots of different experiences is typical of current Generation Y interns. "They try on jobs like they try on shoes."