Bring Out the Best in Your Interns

If your program is interesting and fair, your company and your interns will benefit for years.
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"Hiring managers should set, as a goal, the conversion of about 74% of their interns into permanent employees," according to Steven Rothberg, Founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, an Internet career site. "At least that's how many offers they should extend."

So what are the goals of your company's internship program?

Sure, revenue may be down, but the pool of talent isn't. Now is not the time to let your internship program languish as many employers did in the last economic crunch of 2002-03. Rothberg says that while business has slowed for many, now is the time to let interns do more hands-on work, but warns not to assign tasks that require more experience than what these fresh college faces are equipped to handle.

"They're just not ready to shoulder that workload yet. Not the amount of work so much, but the type of work," says Rothberg. "They don't have the experience; they don't have the training. It will lead to stress, it will lead to poor performance and it will lead to turnover."

Give Interns Something to Aim For

One way to get more out of interns is by setting goals. "Any employee will tell you that part of their job satisfaction comes from knowing what is expected of them and where they stand vs. these goals," says Jason Blessing, Group Vice President for the Horn Group, a communications company. "Studies show that goals that are aligned with company strategy and consistent feedback on those goals is key to employee engagement."

The reward for these goals may even be future employment. With the current unemployment rate rising to 5.5% in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the prospect of a steady paycheck may look more appealing than ever. However, if you dangle a carrot, mean it.

Rothberg warns that disgruntled interns will go back to their campuses and trash-talk your internship if you are untruthful about promises. As a result, your company could have a hard time hiring quality prospects for years to come.

It is also important to know what your competitors are doing. Are they offering programs with more hands-on work? Do they have a better hiring rate than your business? Rothberg says, for example, that if your business extends a small number of employment offers compared to your competitors, you'll probably have a more difficult time recruiting quality interns.

Be a Mentor

Inherently, internships are a temporary-to-permanent relationship. Essentially, the interns are giving your company a test run and you're trying them out. Sometimes interns have the talent and drive, but the chemistry just isn't there -- that's fine. It's important to not think of interns as a short three-month solution, but rather a potential employee that you're looking forward to having on your team for the next five to 10 years.

Businesses can get a better chemistry reading through mentoring. Not only will your company get a better understanding of the intern as a person, but mentoring adds value to your internship because the intern is able to gain knowledge from the experience that is difficult to get out of a book.

One way to go about mentoring your interns is by asking current employees to volunteer. Rothberg says he's seen too many businesses try to force employees to mentor, only to watch the experiment fail.

One secret is to get a mentor from an outside department. A reason for this is that Gen Y is not just interested in moving up in companies, but also across, says Rothberg. An intern in this generation may have studied to be a financial analyst, but they'll look favorably at organizations willing to accommodate their desire to change careers to become, say, a market analyst. Having a mentor from an outside department shows this type of flexibility and open mindedness.

Be Socially Responsible

Rothberg and Blessing agree, when it comes to social justice and the environment, your company better have an open mind. "They're

Gen Y very socially conscious and it's not just lip service," says Rothberg. "They're actually rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty."

With business slowing, now is a perfect time to have an intern spearhead new social efforts if you don't already have any in place. It's something that Gen Y is passionate about and it's also good publicity throughout the community and with future employee prospects. You can even have your interns dig up research to show other weary business partners the value of a social program, the cost savings and other forms of ROI.

Good internships are independent of the state of the economy, says Blessing. If your business uses interns exclusively as short-term solutions for menial tasks, you're wasting a golden opportunity. Remember: Be socially sensitive, be a mentor and give your interns something to strive for.

Steve Cooper spent over six years at Entrepreneur magazine and Entrepreneur.com. He was most recently the managing editor of Entrepreneur.com and was previously the research editor for Entrepreneur magazine. He has a degree in journalism from San Francisco State University and runs his own business, Hitched Media, Inc.