What Makes a Great Internship? 5 Lessons From Top-ranked Companies

As someone who firmly believes that a college internship is a huge factor in jump-starting a career, I was intrigued by this new survey of the best companies with internships based on ratings and reviews from users who flagged themselves as an “intern” on Indeed.com.

Indeed, which touts itself as “the world’s No. 1 job site,” makes this very same point in a press release about the survey, noting:

For people at the start of their careers, an internship can be a crucial professional development tool. The right internship is not only a great way to get a foot in the door at a company but also an opportunity to ‘try out’ a career to see if it’s a good fit.”

But internships aren’t just about a nice experience for the interns; they’re also a way for savvy companies to build a pipeline that attracts sharp young talent. Given the changing demographics of the American workforce, anything that helps companies attract the best and the brightest is a really good thing.

In fact, Indeed also notes that “according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 67 percent of college students’ internships in 2017 turned into job offers — with a 76.4 percent acceptance rate.”

Top Companies for Interns as Ranked by Interns

The centerpiece of the Indeed study (and you can find our more about it here) is its list of the top-rated companies for internships, according to the interns. According to a press release about the study, “Indeed’s data science team crunched the numbers from reviews by interns at firms in our 72 million-strong database of ratings and reviews. We then ranked the top workplaces for internships in the U.S. based on overall ratings from interns.”

So, here are the Top 15 highest-rated companies for intern experience based on Indeed employer ratings and reviews (and on a five-point scale with a “5” being best):

  1. Kaiser Permanente — 4.24 rating;
  2. The Walt Disney Company — 4.14;
  3. Northwestern Mutual — 4.10;
  4. Walgreens — 4.08;
  5. YMCA — 4.06;
  6. Starbucks — 3.99;
  7. Lowe’s — 3.94;
  8. Burlington Stores — 3.94;
  9. The Home Depot — 3.93;
  10. Macy’s — 3.92;
  11. Amazon.com — 3.90;
  12. Kohl’s — 3.87;
  13. Chick-fil-A — 3.82
  14. Target — 3.81;
  15. UPS — 3.80.

Here’s my take: Maybe it’s not possible, but I really wanted a lot more details on the methodology used to rank these companies because there are a great many variables with internship programs that can impact the intern experience.

I know this because back in a past life I was the internship director for a major West Coast newspaper that, for a couple of years, made a big deal out of its summer internship program. There was huge support from senior executives for it until one day, the budget got tight and the program was dramatically changed — and not for the better.

Overnight, we went from a great internship program to a nearly non-existent one.

Even among companies with a long history of internship programs, there are a great number of factors that can skew the experience interns have with them. In other words, your mileage may vary when it comes to these companies and their internship rankings.

In addition, mixing and matching paid and unpaid internships is a bit of a problem because they’re hard to compare. More on that in a bit.

But there is also some great information in the Indeed internship report that I found to be really useful — its breakout of the five best internship practices gleaned from the top-ranked companies.

Paid Internships Can Get Better Results

From Indeed: “Though we didn’t set out to include only paid internships on our list, we learned that all of the highest-rated companies do pay their interns. Although not every firm can afford to do so, paid internships are on the rise, and one study found that paid interns tend to gain more experience because they are given more advanced tasks. For example, in terms of day-to-day activities, paid interns spend about 42 percent of their time doing professional tasks like analysis and project management, compared to unpaid interns who do this kind of work only 30 percent of the time.”

My view: The reason paid interns get better tasks is generally because paid internships are usually full-time work over the course of a summer, or sometimes, a college semester. Part-time internships are usually for college credit, wedged in between the intern’s other college classes and activities, and may be only 2-3 days a week during the spring or fall term. Because full-time interns are on a regular work schedule for a 3-4 month period, they simply have more opportunity to impress the managers they are working for. This leads to greater responsibilities and better work assignments.

Offer a Variety of Tasks

From Indeed: “If interns wanted to take coffee orders and make copies all day, they would look for work as a barista or at a copy center. In a professional internship, offer them the chance to try different professional tasks in order to provide challenging experiences. This also allows a company to see how an intern handles a variety of tasks that a regular employee at the company would have to do — a great way to evaluate potential future fit at the company. An example of a company doing this well is Macy’s (No. 10 on our list); they offer a range of different types of internships from store management to buying/digital merchandising.”

My view: This is good advice, but every company has a philosophy about the kind of work they give interns that is usually based on their previous success with interns. And, that’s usually predicated on the quality of interns that each company has recruited into its program. If they have had successful interns who have made positive workplace contributions in the past, they will be more likely to be willing to give better work to interns in the future.

Plan Your Intern’s Work Ahead of Time

From Indeed: “Interns need to be kept busy if you want them to be engaged at work and contribute to the company’s goals. When companies don’t think through what they expect of interns and outline tasks in advance, this can result in a wasted opportunity for both parties, as the unhappy interns have little to show for the time they spent with your company. Be sure to plan work for interns ahead of time. A common thread in reviews for top companies was that interns enjoyed always having work to do. As one satisfied intern at fourth place Walgreens put it, ‘You’re never not busy while on the clock.’ ”

Article Continues Below

My view: This is also smart advice, particularly when you consider that millennials have already told us that they really want to have a meaningful experience. The key is to give interns meaningful work that they can both succeed at and be proud of at the end of the internship.

Think Long Term

From Indeed: “Companies need to do the work up front to make sure the intern is a good match for the company, beyond just the summer or semester they spend there. This can lead to a potential candidate who already aligns with the company values and mission. The payoff can be huge in the long run in the form of a full-time hire when the internship ends. Home Depot (No. 9) seems to be doing very well in this area — 77 percent of their interns get a full-time return offer.”

My view: Recruiting interns is no different than recruiting employees, and companies get into trouble when they somehow forget this. You should look for interns who fit into your culture the same way you do for employees you want to hire. One more thing: be careful that you don’t get fixated on just recruiting interns from Ivy League schools or other top-ranked or well-known colleges. Good interns, like good employees, can come from everywhere and anywhere if you’re looking and screening carefully.

Offer Perks and Assistance

From Indeed: “Interns have many options when it comes to choosing a company, so perks and assistance can tip the scales for a company. Consider how you can make living in your city easier, as well as any unique company products you can offer. For example, Starbucks offers housing assistance for those based outside the Seattle area — a notoriously expensive city to live in. They also give interns a free pound of whole bean coffee per week and all the handcrafted beverages they can drink.”

My take: One of the things that make interns feel not so much like they’re interns is when the company treats them like other regular employees. Letting them take advantage of as many of the perks your employees have available can help them to feel like they’re part of the larger team and sends a message that they belong. That’s a great recruiting tool in any environment.

John Hollon

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.