6 Reasons to improve your intern program

Whole Whale is based on the idea that we should be maximizing every opportunity — using each aspect of the metaphorical “whales” around us when it comes to tech for social impact. Recently we realized there is a massive adjoining market (whale) that the social impact sector isn’t leveraging: Interns!

Over the years, we have seen amazing work done by well-trained and well-managed interns both for us and our clients. Nationwide data also suggest that the social impact sector relies heavily on this workforce. In the summer of 2017, there were 19,600 internships posted on leading job site Indeed.com. Of these 19,600 listings, 7% of them were for internships in the nonprofit sector (compared to only 1.8% of Indeed.com’s 3.8 million job postings that were for nonprofits).

This summer, there were 19,600 internship postings on @indeed. 7% were for nonprofits. Click To Tweet

Nonprofits are not alone in their fostering of and reliance on interns. According to GlassDoor, some of the top for-profit companies have even been increasing their intern compensation. Looking at the list of top-rated corporate internship programs, names like Facebook, Google, NBCUniversal, Disney, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Morgan Stanley, and Apple show up for good reason. These are successful companies that understand something that others don’t: Properly run internship programs are worth the investment.

Recruiting burgeoning talent matters in instances beyond tech talent. There is a wide range of job roles covered by more than 30,000 open internships in the US.

1. Developing the Talent Pipeline

Internships provide the best test-drive, the wine tasting, the ultimate “try before you buy” option for employees. Metaphors aside, internships can be a powerful vetting process even before any short-term work they do is factored into the equation.

To make the economic case clear, the organization’s whole hiring ecosystem must be considered. Hiring is a time-intensive and high-risk endeavor, where the wrong hire can cost a company as much as 15 times their salary according to Geoff Smart and Randy Street, authors of Who: The A Method for Hiring. An internship is a low-risk and clear way of testing the fit of a potential employee because you actually work with them!

The most common argument against internship programs is the cost in time and money. This is a sound argument if the program is poorly run, talent isn’t recruited, work isn’t properly mapped out, and there is no long-term pipeline need for hiring.

If your organization is hiring people annually in entry-level positions, an internship program should be a must. This is what DoSomething.org realized early on; roughly 30% their current staff are former interns.

In a 2017 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the 5-year retention rate for employees that began as interns was 51.8% vs 35.8% retention for non-interns (n=276 employers). This difference is significant, especially considering the compound value of employees that stay beyond this mark. These data help demonstrate the direct link between strong internship programs and employee retention.

Data don't lie: The link between strong internship programs and employee retention. Click To Tweet

2. Fresh Ideas and Thinking

What is the value of a fresh perspective that reshapes how a team may thinking about a market? As team works together over time, they become more efficient and more trapped in the box of groupthink. A pipeline of new thinkers into this mix can greatly increase a team’s ability to tap into fresh thinking and approaches to existing problems.

New ideas and solutions often come from the fringe, from people thinking with a different perspective as was pointed out in several studies done by the Harvard Business Review. Some of these solutions are groundbreaking, some are along the lines of the Taco Bell Doritos shell, which allegedly started as an intern pitch idea in the late 90’s and went on to be a billion dollar win for the company.

As they are typically in their college years, another asset that interns bring is insight into how the rising generation thinks. This is an issue that many nonprofits are trying to address as their donor and audience pools continue to age, which means this solution can act as free market research.

3. Getting things done

It’s true that traditionally it can take one to 3 months for people to start producing valuable work for a company. This is brutal for 3 month long internships. But if an intern program is set up with planned onboarding trainings and work that is perfectly mapped out for their skill levels, a lot can get done.

In the case that your organization just needs work done, Move For Hunger has created trainings and strategic work that allow their interns to deliver immediate value. Their 2-day training systematizes critical skills interns need to manage the database, messaging, and content creation that will make up the bulk of their tasks. At their peak, they manage two interns for every staff member — a staff that is made up of 60% former interns.

Of their internship program, Move for Hunger founder Adam Lowy says:

“It took a long time to build a strong internship program. We now have 70+ interns that apply for limited spots each semester, which allows us to choose great interns. However, it wasn’t always this way. We continue to collect feedback from our interns to make our program stronger, and create a structured curriculum so as to not create a burden on our staff managing them. Interns can be a LOT of work if you don’t have specific tasks for them to do.”

4. Internships are good for the economy

The goal of your organization is to solve the social issues of the mission, not to help the economy. However, it is great to know how your organization’s labor practices can contribute to the larger system.

Internships are a critical step in the learning journey of young people, one that is desperately lacking in our current economy. This has been true since the dawn of specialized skills, where apprenticeships taught upcoming generations the secrets of the trade. Current data from NACE show that paid internships lead to a 60% chance of employment, versus 36% for those without internships.

Helping young people join the workforce in their respective fields of interest accelerates their growth and maximizes their lifetime earning potential. The sooner someone begins their career journey, the faster they learn and gain experience that results in increase compensation. Millennials are now the largest working generation in the US, and internships are one of the best ways to accelerate college graduates into the workforce as baby boomers retire.

5. Tech Comes Easier*

*Yes, it’s a a bit of a stereotype that all young people know technology and as a result can code your website in their sleep.

That said, the current generation is ubiquitously described as “digital natives,” and coding is becoming what touch typing was for older generations. Given the right oversight and direction, we’ve seen amazing results from digitally-trained interns. This generation is eager to learn and hungry to build new things that reach people.  

The case for internships for good. Click To Tweet

6. Competition for Talent

The labor market is becoming increasingly competitive for companies searching for talent. This goes beyond the argument of developing talent and acknowledges that the early bird catches the worm.

Internship programs can help your company start recruiting across top colleges and universities while reputation as a great place to work. This then becomes a simple game of sales: Potential employees are currently in college, and the sooner they start learning about your “product,” the better. Students that are at the top of their class come at a premium and if you want your organization to be at the top of their list, it helps to get in front of them early with what can be a test-drive for them as much as a test-drive for you. If done properly, well-established internship programs can serve as your own on campus recruiter helping attract the best talent from that school.

You’ve hired an intern — now what? Here are 7 tips for intern onboarding.