Editor's note: This survey was conducted March 16-21. Readers should note that, due to the novel Coronavirus outbreak, organizational priorities have changed and internships, in particular, have been affected.
HR professionals say they primarily operate internship programs as a way to create a talent pool for the future, according to an HR Dive reader survey.
More than a quarter of the 1,716 respondents said that was the main goal they hoped to achieve by having interns. The remaining responses, however, were nearly evenly split between aiming to obtain free or expensive labor; hire directly from the current intern class; boost employer brand; and create leadership opportunities for employees.
Given the competition in today's labor market — the pre-pandemic market, at least — putting effort into the systems and processes around an internship can pay off in many ways, experts say. In that respect, internships may represent an opportunity for an employer to boost its recruiting and talent outcomes.
"It's a strategy on the part of the firms to get the best people committed to their organization," Nicole Coomber, a management professor at the University of Maryland, told HR Dive. "If you think about that organization that took a chance on you, when you were a sophomore, you didn't know anything, and invested in you, it creates organizational commitment."
Building this commitment to an organization with high-potential individuals impacts turnover, performance and satisfaction in the long run, Coomber said.
That early access to talent is one of the most important benefits of an internship program, agreed Brooks Holtom, a management professor at Georgetown University. "There's a stream of research that shows that top talent creates disproportionate value in organizations, so organizations need to pay special attention to people who are highly talented in the recruiting and selection process, but also in terms of retaining them," he told HR Dive.
As for those who selected "free or inexpensive labor," it may be time to re-think that strategy, the experts said, because they can be exploitative and also more geared toward students who don't need to earn money over the summers.
Crafting an accurate experience
Ultimately, interns see their experience as a microcosm of what working at that company — and in that industry — would look like. The role of HR is to make sure that experience accurately reflects the culture and values of the company.
"It's an opportunity to show, rather than tell, prospective employees about what our culture is like and the types of impactful projects you could potentially work on if hired full time," Oscar Perez, diversity recruitment and programs manager at Facebook, told HR Dive.
"College students have a wide array of choices when it comes to deciding where to spend a summer interning, so they often pay special attention to how work gets done, what dynamics exist on their team and on broader teams, as well as getting a sense of how the company builds community for all of its employees," he continued.
Of course, internships also allow employers to see how a prospective employee works. "Essentially, it's almost like a summer-long job interview," Coomber said.
To shape a program that accurately reflects the employee experience, it can be helpful to ask high performing employees around the company for input.
Coomber suggests asking those people, "'What is it that they would need to get and retain better employees?' ... 'What is it that they're doing with their employees that works really well?'" And then ask yourself: Could you replicate that in an internship program?
As with traditional employees, delivering a high-quality experience means acknowledging individuals' long-term goals while challenging them to meet company objectives.
The students who feel they learned a specific skill or were coached and developed throughout the program "walk away with a lot of goodwill toward that organization, even if they don't end up working there full time," Coomber said. "And a lot of them then do because they feel invested in and cared for."
Culture can set companies apart, and it's the people that drive culture. "It's almost always people," Holtom said, reflecting on feedback from former interns. "They come back and they say, 'I made a bunch of good friends. [...] I could see myself working with these people full-time and enjoying it.'"