Build a Candidate Pipeline Through Internships

May 10, 2006

It is getting more difficult to attract the best college graduates. For the first time in several years, the demand for a broad spectrum of college graduates has grown. reports a 7.8% increase in the demand for new graduates over 2005. This demand is spread across many majors ó not just engineering and the sciences, but also for graduates in business, government, accounting, and communications.

It is especially hard to get offers accepted if the first time you have seen or spoken to a prospective graduate is in the few months prior to his or her graduation. Organizations that have both a strong employment brand as well as a relationship with a variety of students on campuses tend over time to have greater success in getting students to say yes to their offers. Internship programs have been around for decades and provide students with valuable work experience and skills. These programs also provide employers with the opportunity to assess the culture fit, work habits, and skills of these students so that offers can be made to the best ones. Many corporate internship programs are poorly thought-out and do not capture the hearts or minds of the intern. Many hiring managers treat these programs as a cheap way to get extra help or as a service to students who need some extra spending money, rather than as strategic tools to build a continuous pipeline of talent. Programs that are not built on long-range strategic goals tend to be much less effective and become regarded as relatively expensive programs that do not deliver much to the organization.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that the average employer converts only around 43% of interns to full-time employment after graduation. Looked at in another way, almost 60% of interns do not go to work for the sponsor of their internship. In order to develop a useful and effective internship program that selects the most capable students and converts them to regular employment, organizations need to invest both time and money in thoughtfully constructing a program. Here are several steps that will lead to a program that will be regarded as a success and will produce most of the college graduates you need.

Develop a Strategic Foundation for the Internship Program

As you consider putting an internship program in place, you need to answer a basic but very important question: What do you expect to get from the program?? Do you want to develop a pipeline of potential hires? Do you want to provide a public service to students who need some sort of income?? Do you want to have access to professors and their research?? As recruiters, you should be primarily focused on developing a pipeline of the talent that is the most difficult for your organization to find and hire.

For example, if finding enough computer engineers is a problem, then a very strategic way to solve that issue over time might be to encourage engineering students to major in computer engineering by offering them internships. This is also the way to build a business case for getting the funding you will need to advertise and support the program. There may be secondary goals for these programs, but to make financial sense converting many of these interns to full-time employees needs to be the ultimate goal. At the same time, any human resource policies that inhibit conversions or that make it difficult to attract interns should be re-examined and rewritten. A second, and almost as important a question, is when to start recruiting students for internships. Should they only be approached after they have declared a major, or should you start the program very early and provide the students with some career guidance on majors your organization would find useful? Often, today’s students are unclear about what organizations are looking for and which majors are appropriate. Guidance early in their school career, along with carefully-designed internships, can be effective in creating talent pools that can be tapped three or four years later.

Structure the Program With Conversion in Mind

Surprisingly, many employers do not make conversion of interns a core piece of their intern strategy. They focus on providing the students with real-life experience or with doing a service to their key colleges and universities in the hope that their benevolence pays off in future hiring. No one tracks conversions very carefully, and often, no effort is made to hire the interns after graduation. However, programs without specific hiring goals don’t achieve much. While they may get some local acknowledgement for proving work for college students, they lose a potentially great source of talent every year. I know of a company where they have had interns for more than five years and have not tried to convert any. In fact, the few that have expressed interest have been discouraged from applying, because this organization focuses on hiring experienced people. On the other hand, many organizations make the internship experience the primary entry door to new talent and provide the quality of program that encourages the best to apply.

Provide Students With Real Work to Make the Internship Exciting and Meaningful

Students who have suffered through boring internships are not likely to want to work for your company. While this is obvious, a large percentage of intern programs do not actively engage the students in meaningful work. The Gen-Y students you are recruiting today want to be part of project teams and want to use their skills to help the team accomplish its objectives. They do not want to work alone or on routine activities that, while necessary and perhaps even essential to the organization, are not developing the skills the students feel will help them in their careers. I know of a finance student who was assigned to help a department controller. This involved collecting data, building a spreadsheet or two, and sitting through some very boring financial reviews. While this is actually what a controller does, and is the kind of position the student might end up filling as a new employee, it was not challenging. It did not allow him to use the concepts he had learned in the classroom and his manager was not a good coach. The experience was not positive and the student went elsewhere. A little twist on an assignment ó perhaps a project to look for ways to cut costs ó combined with a better manager would have made this intern an easy conversion.

Assess the Interns Realistically and Coach Them Well

Students are trained to expect fairly frequent feedback in the form of tests and professor comments. Going into the work environment can be a strange experience because they suddenly get much less information on how they are doing. Most interns want feedback, especially feedback that is constructive and is combined with coaching or development. Serious interns want to be part of projects that are important to the organization and that will stretch and motivate them. They need to get feedback on how their contribution helped the project or slowed it down. They need to know where their skills need improvement and where they are strong. Giving this kind of feedback is hard for almost all managers, but particularly hard to give to young people who are not employees. Managers of interns need to be carefully chosen and need to be skilled at mentoring and teaching. Assuming that interns are just a pair-of-hands to help out an overworked staff is a common mistake and a fatal one when it comes to converting the students to full-time employment. Remember, the manager they have as an intern is the model they will carry forth for all managers.

Make the Conversion Process Clear and Smooth

There may not even be a smooth process in place for making conversions from intern to employee. One firm I was talking to requires that each intern fill out an application, go through the normal interview process, and then be hired into an open slot that could also be filled with an experienced hire. Obviously, many interns are put off by the need to apply and interview once again, and many hiring managers would rather use that position for an expert than for a rookie. Good programs waive the application and interview process. After all, these people have filled out some sort of application for the internship and have been assessed for weeks or months as interns. These organizations have also set up some structure or process to allow interns and college hires to fill positions reserved exclusively for them. A semiconductor firm that I am well acquainted with reserves 5-15 positions each year, depending on the economy, for college hires and conversions. The hiring manager has to pay the salary, but the head count is carried as corporate for one year.

Separate the Poor Performers and Maintain Contact With the Good Ones

If your goal is to build a useful pool of talent, performance assessment is critical to ensuring you have quality candidates. Each intern should get a progress report at the end of each year. Interns who are not performing well need to told that and they should not come back for another year. I have talked to many interns who were uncertain about how they were perceived. On the other hand, if the performance and fit have been good, your relationship should not only continue, but grow. Email and other electronic tools can make staying in touch easy. A regular email, newsletter, blog, and even an occasional phone call to all high-performing past interns can make a huge difference in how they feel about your organization. Let them know if you want them back again, what the process of conversion looks like, and what they can expect. Clear next steps, definite timelines, and objective feedback will lead to many more conversions. I believe that if you convert fewer than 80% of your interns, you should make sure an internship program is the best approach for your organization.

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