How to Design a Brand-Building Intern Experience

As the competition heats up for early career talent, the most strategic business leaders are utilizing their intern programs to create a talent pipeline for entry-level hiring. According to a survey by Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute, 57% of companies say the primary purpose of internship programs is to develop talent for full-time employment. In the National Association of Colleges and Employer’s 2017 Intern and Co-op Report, the average conversion rate from intern to full-time hire is 51.3%, and the 5-year retention rate for interns that convert is 51.8%. These numbers show that an intern program is a viable source for developing future talent in your organization.

However, intern programs can be messy. If an intern conversion is your goal, you must intentionally design an intern experience that will make them want to accept an offer of full-time employment and ensure their support of your brand on campus. In addition, a poorly executed intern program can put your employer brand at risk, which may work against your other hiring goals as well. Interns are only with you for a short time, and they have a relatively limited perspective for evaluating or contextualizing their experience with your workplace and employer brand. Yet, they’re super active on social media, forum and Glassdoor and their posts are presented alongside everyone else’s and will be viewed whenever a future candidate researches your brand online. Your interns will also go back to campus and share their experiences directly with friends, family and the greater community.

Given these realities, smart companies are re-thinking the design of their intern programs to make sure they’re delivering real value to their interns by anticipating their needs, making it meaningful and soliciting feedback along the way. Here are six things to consider when designing your intern program:

1. Make sure it provides extraordinary value to the student

First things first. According to the 2017 NACE Intern and Co-Op report, 46.2% of interns say the top driver of their program satisfaction is that they spend their time doing meaningful work that aligns with their career interest. Make sure to provide real value and a great intern experience by understanding your interns’ personal growth needs, mentoring for more successful contributions to the team, and delegating an impactful project they can present at the end. Make sure they have opportunities to interact with a variety of people at the company as well as each other. Build excitement and interest for full-time employment with transparency into a variety of career paths with job shadows and employee speaker panels. Get leadership involved by having them share their professional journey from graduation to where they are today. A college campus is a viral micro-community, and if you design a high-value intern experience now, you will be investing in your employment brand when they return to school.

2. Engage interns with an active pre-boarding campaign before their internship even starts

Companies are making offers to intern candidates earlier and earlier every year. Many employers will close their process in late December to get top talent off the market and out of their competitor’s interview process. Keeping interns engaged in your company between the time they accept the position and the time they start working is critical to your ROI. Additionally, this is a time to capitalize on your new hire’s network and build a following for your employment brand. Designing a customized pre-boarding experience based on individual intern personas that celebrate, inform, involve and create a social network for interns is essential. Ernst and Young hires over 3000 interns annually and their content at exceptionalEY.com includes games, infographics, student-submitted photos, and career advice from their most senior leaders. GE uses a daily online magazine, called GE Reports that tracks tech trends, has stories about innovation, and tells candidates how GE is fulfilling its purpose. The GE Careers Blog is a fantastic combination of original content and links to recent company articles and publications. Using a targeted content campaign, will make students feel valued while they wait to start and can provide them with valuable company information that appeals to their career interests.

3. Ensure that your internship orientation informs for their success

If you do even a little bit research on Glassdoor, Quora, and other sites, you’ll notice a significant amount of feedback and review activity from company interns. Some are positive, but much of it reveals internships that lack planning, purpose or the intention to build a full-time candidate pipeline post-graduation. The damage is on permanent record for everyone to see. Students come from a world of constant learning, open debate and constructive feedback. Your workplace will be a real cultural change that may not be easy for them to navigate. So design your orientation process to give them all of the information they need to know about what will happen during the internship, what they’ll work on, who they’ll meet, how their evaluated and what will happen after they go back to school. The orientation period should extend into their first few weeks on the job with their supervisor or department-mentor providing the training and feedback they need to be effective in their work and with their team. One way to monitor the intern orientation experience is to have your interns complete a survey after their first 30 days. This allows you to pivot quickly when there are onboarding issues and make changes before those issues negatively effect the intern experience.

4. Get your interns’ feedback – in real time

Gathering feedback is important, but the real magic to feedback lies in when you ask for it and what you do with it. At many companies, intern feedback is usually gathered as a post-mortem. But students come from a world of constant learning, open debate and constructive feedback, and they’re accustomed to openly rating products and commenting publicly on customer service issues in real time. They’re your program’s best critics, so ask for their feedback at every step of the way, and make changes that make sense quickly. Successful employer brands like Google, eBay, and Disney, have feedback loops such as surveys, intern focus groups, and group thinking sessions built into the design of their programs. It is a part of their program DNA. When you ask interns to help you by providing feedback and they see that feedback used to improve practices right away, they will appreciate having a voice, gain professional confidence, and you’ll benefit from the continuous improvements to your program.

5. Make off-boarding a clear and meaningful experience 

Preparing for your interns return to campus requires checklists, templates and a good communications plan. But if you want to be really competitive for the intern talent that you have been cultivating all summer you will want to design their off-boarding process to deliver a great experience as well. Using your intern program to identify future full-time talent requires a conversion strategy for the interns that you want to extend offers to, as well as a thoughtful way of managing the expectations of those you don’t. You should base your hiring decisions on written performance evaluations and a well-constructed interview process. How you design this process will have an impact on your interns’ pride and self-esteem and must be done well. If you have hired interns that will not be graduating, consider asking them back for a rotational internship in a different role. This will expand their career readiness and broaden their skill set. Finally, don’t underestimate the of a high-impact, back-to-school event. Spotify stays true to its brand and hosts a concert event for their interns, while others use a variety of recreational activities and volunteer events. Showing your appreciation with a capstone event will make them feel valued and can help ensure that they all continue to be positive ambassadors for your brand.

6. Prepare your interns to be campus ambassadors 

Whether your interns have a great experience with your company or not, they’re going to return to school and share their experience with other people; which will either build or erode your employer brand. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employer’s 2017 Intern and Co-op Report, 89% of Millennials trust recommendations from their friends and family more than what recruiters tell them. So, it’s important to ensure that your interns represent your company well and have the resources they need to do that effectively. Did it meet their expectations? Was it a positive experience? That’s what students are more interested in hearing from their peers that have worked at your company. Design a session that solicits their final feedback and also helps them find the words to communicate the value of their internship with your company to others.

Final thoughts 

The experience that an intern has while working for you is not only going to shape their professional skills, it will forever-impact the social media and rating footprint of your employment brand. The university students of today are the decision makers, consumers, and influencers of tomorrow, and their voice is powerful. Intentionally designing and managing the critical touchpoints of your company’s intern experience will ensure your program delivers meaningful value to the students you hire, and positively delivers on your employer brand to early career talent.

 

Julie Bonnie is Senior Partner, Talent Acquisition Consulting at Employera. Julie and her team assess, develop and operationalize solutions to complex challenges in talent acquisition and recruiting. She has broad experience managing sizeable in-house operations, and consulting experience with companies across a variety of industries; Cisco, eBay, Symantec, Juniper Networks, Aspire Public Schools, Bart, PG&E, Mervyns and more. In addition, she has expertise in designing and managing special recruiting programs at scale: university recruiting, intern programs, diversity, STEM, veteran’s initiatives, and high-volume staffing programs. Other projects such as strategy design, rotation programs, talent systems implementations, recruiter and hiring manager workshops, and candidate experience delivery have all enabled her clients to attract, hire and retain employees more successfully.

Employera is a specialized management consulting firm whose services include employer branding, talent acquisition consulting, employee engagement, cultural evolution, and experience design. 

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