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Top Seven Ways to Attract and Keep a Great Intern

By Risa Wilkerson on August 21st, 2014

Ask anyone about their internship experience and you’re bound to hear an interesting story. Between Charla Hodges and me, we have had seven years of internship experience and many accompanying stories. Some good. Some bad. If one could make a career out of being an intern,* we would be well on our way. From our own experiences, and from talking with many others, we know of organizations that use an apprenticeship model with success. And others that have no recognizable model at all.

So, we thought we’d share our checklist on how to attract and keep a great intern. This list is based on our experiences working with organizations that use interns in highly effective ways, and those that shall forever remain nameless.

  1. Be Thoughtful in Decision Making: Most organizations are very thorough when hiring a new paid employee. Why should choosing an intern be different? Formally vetting interns helps to align interests and needs, both for the organization and the intern. And while it may take a larger investment on the front end, it saves everyone a lot more time down the road.
  1. Use Fair Advertising: In other words, don’t pull a bait and switch. Too often interns are excited to experience a specific opportunity only to show up and find a different scenario. Sometimes change is unavoidable, and it is important for students, like all employees, to be flexible. However, with careful planning, organizations can be clearer about what the opportunity really offers. When the exact tasks aren’t known, advertise the position using potential projects as a guide.
  1. Develop More Than Cogs: Cogs only do one job. And we bet the intern who collates and staples for eight hours a day has some untapped gifts that go beyond what is listed on his or her resume. Allow interns to be involved in a variety of organizational functions. This helps deepen the organizational bench, builds additional skills and brings new perspectives into multiple areas of the work. Interns often possess a deeper level of knowledge, skills and talents than you might expect, so give them a platform to show you what they can offer!
  1. Feed the Interns: Regularly scheduled check-in meetings, even 30-45 minutes a week, can pay huge dividends. Devoting staff time to interns, offering professional development activities and mentorship, allows for calibration on projects, builds capacity and confidence, and sets the stage for future autonomy.
  1. Learn From Them: The experience is better for everyone when there is a culture of two-way learning. At Active Living By Design (ALBD), we found that interns bring a fresh pair of eyes to our work, and those contributions and energies elevate our ability to think more critically. Individuals within organizations can easily slip into groupthink. Bringing in students to share their perspectives, opinions and previous experiences related to internal processes or content, for example, can foster healthy dialogue or changes that makes everyone better.
  1. Build in Benefits: Although the experience is a valuable benefit, compensate interns with stipends, when possible. Interns have bills, too. And when the budget is too tight, consider other options, such as professional membership dues, transportation reimbursement, health care stipends or certifications.
  1. Create Ambassadors: Whenever someone shares an internship horror story, it rarely focuses on the actual work. Rather, these stories involve the organization’s drama, rumors or questionable decision making experienced firsthand. Regardless of the organization’s external performance, healthy internal dynamics and organizational cultures can model strong professionalism for these soon-to-be employees and create ambassadors for your organization and mission.

Clearly, time with interns is fleeting as they work toward launching their own careers. At ALBD, we view our collaboration with research assistants as an investment. During our 12-year history, we have had 30 research assistants (the authors being two of those, one past and one current). Most of them were affiliated with the nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

ALBD’s intern alumni are now supporting healthy communities across the country, from Florida to California and even in the United Kingdom. In the spirit of building the field, lifting leaders and inspiring collaboration, ALBD strives to train each intern well. We intentionally help our research assistants carry our Lessons for Leaders principles, internal polices, and other less tangible philosophies about the work to their next positions. Does your organization have similar aspirations for students or other temporary employees?

We’re always interested in better, more meaningful collaboration with research assistants. Share creative or innovative ways that your organization partners with these future leaders on Facebook.

*  “Intern” can be used interchangeably with “student,” “research assistant” and “graduate assistant”…but not “the new kid.”

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.