In our four-part series on student internships, Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) members explore the benefits, pitfalls, best practices and methods for engaging the next generation of students to build a successful student internship program.
When we asked our entrepreneurs about their experiences with student interns, many had positive outcomes to report. However, some learned by trial and error about the pitfalls inherent in bringing students with little or no professional experience into their organization. We're sharing the pitfalls they discovered to maximize your opportunity for student intern success:
1. Neglecting to Make a Concrete Plan
Some companies think they'll hire a student intern, introduce them to the team and voila! The intern will fill in gaps where employees are overworked. More hands on deck equals more productivity, right? Unfortunately, when expectations aren't aligned, that's not always how it works.
"If you're going to hire an intern, a plan needs to be in place for what you want them to accomplish during the internship. Try to get them involved in areas where they will learn and contribute. Don't just give them grunt work that nobody in your company wants to do," said Andrew Tupler, CEO of Tupler Financial.
"We've learned that having a defined project is an important part of helping interns be successful at the company, rather than just giving them grunt work. We do upside down mentoring―particularly in this day and age, interns are a huge value-add in understanding how technology will influence buying patterns," stated Jeremy Miller, CEO of FSA Store.
2. Unrealistic Skill Level Expectations
One reason that students approach internships with mixed emotions is the fear that they'll be making coffee and fetching lunch. Chances are, they can accomplish a lot more than that. Get interns involved in real-world business situations where they can contribute, but don't throw them into a project that's too far over their heads.
"Know what skill they want to learn, and sprinkle it into their non-skilled daily task load. Don't make their entire task load learning. And help them grow personally: I give my interns two books to read each month, one related to our business skillset and the other about personal development. If they do so, I give them $50 for each book," said Bill Donato, founder and CEO of Conversion Whale.
"Finding the balance between work that is interesting for them, and work they can actually do is a challenge. It's not even about capability. It's about familiarity―everything is new to them. Assumed knowledge is a real trap in these cases. Keeping the work interesting is critical, but throwing them into anything is not advised," said John Cinquina, entrepreneur, author and brand strategist.
3. Assuming your Internship Program Will Blossom Without Effort
Companies that have flourishing internship programs in place didn't develop them overnight. You have to commit to the process in order to grow your program into the success you want it to be.
"Our interns used to do menial tasks until one of our key people took an intern under her wing, getting her involved in actual client work and real-world experiences. Today that former intern is one of our most integral full-time team members. We now take a similar approach in nurturing all of our interns, and the quality of our program has improved dramatically," said Jack Martin, President of J. Fitzgerald Group.
"It's an investment of time―especially the first time. Interns require sourcing, interviewing, hiring, planning and of course, managing. This all takes time. My experiences have taught me not to do this as a one-off but to create an internship program, because efficiency is only realized when you do it regularly. It's a cost to the business either way, and so must be planned as such," John Cinquina continued.
4. Unclarified Expectations
Everything's easier when rules are clearly stated at the beginning: Be sure your student interns know what to expect and what you expect.
"Let them know they are accountable to everyone on the team, and they will be given tasks by everyone in the office. Additionally, set guidelines for their attendance by the number of committed hours per week rather than specific days and times. By doing so, they'll get creative to fill the hours. If you specify attendance days, they'll get creative at missing the days," Bill Donato continued.
"Each participant in our program develops and signs a contract with their mentor, to establish clear expectations for both roles and ensure a goal-driven experience. We have high expectations and standards. When they get it right, we provide positive feedback to encourage repeated behavior. When they're not on track, we revisit the contract to review and reestablish expectations," said Jessica Moseley, CEO of TCS Interpreting.
5. Assigning Only Menial Tasks
Today's student interns are eager to make their mark. Empower them with real-world experiences and you might discover a fresh perspective that solves an ongoing challenge.
"We empower our interns to be actively involved in our business. They negotiate offers and research site selections. Our current Acquisition and Leasing Manager started with us in 2015 as an intern. He's only 21 years old and still in college, yet he's working on deals with Fortune 500 companies and taking tenants on site tours. This opportunity gives him insight into what the career is like in real life," said Joshua Simon, CEO of Simon CRE.
"Our interns work on client deliverables, communicate with clients, write for a variety of sources, have accountability and autonomy, and own projects as though they were a permanent member of our team. It's very important to us that our interns get opportunities to develop and grow in the professional realm and work toward their long-term goals. We onboard them just like any other employee so they feel like a part of the team from the start, which in turn gives them meaning and purpose in their work," said Jay Feitlinger, CEO of StringCan Interactive.
6. Overlooking Best Practices
Jack Martin shared his best practices for running an internship program:
- Develop a relationship with local universities to keep your intern pipeline stocked.
- Post available positions on your Web site with a detailed description.
- Hire interns for different disciplines within your organization.
- Interview candidates just like full-time employees and select wisely.
- Assign interns an internal mentor who works in the role they ultimately seek.
- Give them real-world work, whether it's for external clients or internal use.
- Get them involved in company meetings, client meetings and community events.
- Have top management meet with them occasionally to see how things are going.
- If you don't have a full-time role for them after the internship, offer to assist them in finding employment and provide a reference.