In sports, the best defense is a good offense. This lesson can be applied to managing college students during their summer internships. Taking some time before the summer starts to prepare to have interns makes a significant impact on business results and interns' satisfaction with the experience. Here are three best practices you can use to prepare.
1. Have an actual job description. There are some employers that offer fully defined intern roles with outlined processes for training, mentorship, specific work projects and end-of-summer showcases. However, many employers put just a little planning into what type of intern they may want, and then leave the day-to-day work open. The challenge with the laissez-faire style of internship management is threefold. First, if you have no detailed plan of what you would like an intern to do, it is very difficult to select the right candidate. Second, it's challenging to provide meaningful work without thinking through what projects are easy to train on, easy to measure and will be engaging for a student to complete. Third, with no clear instruction or plan, interns can get lost in the shuffle (and lose motivation). In general, people perform best when they have direction and know expectations. For college students and entry level professionals with little work experience, a clearly defined path is a must for high productivity.
2. Create three levels of work. Now that you have outlined many of the tasks and duties that comprise the internship, look to divide the work into three levels. First, you need an orientation project. This short-term project, often about two weeks in length, lets the intern learn the ropes of your systems, processes and department/company culture. It is your litmus test to see how he takes instruction, his pace and his general level of professional protocol. Also, it ensures that he will have at least one completed project to add to his résumé at the end of the summer. Completing tasks and having transferable accomplishments to add to a résumé are significant contributors to your intern’s satisfaction. It also increases the likelihood that he will tell others about your great company.
Second, you need a longer term project with an end-of-summer goal. The title says most of it, but the project should have multiple tasks/duties and is usually more complex than the orientation project. To achieve maximum success, map out how progress and final success will be measured. Include timelines and check points. These progress points ensure that your intern knows what is expected and makes it easier for mentors and managers to give constructive feedback on actual progress versus expected progress. If you don't identify ways to check in, you stand a high possibility that the intern will be told, “You’re doing fine” for 10 weeks while the team is actually disappointed with the work and cannot wait to see him leave.
Finally, create a list of filler work. All of us have either been the totally bored newbie with nothing to do, or the manager who is baffled why Bob the intern is living on Instagram while the rest of the team is frantically working away. (Or, we have been both.) These scenarios can be avoided if the intern is presented with a handful of additional tasks he can do between larger projects or while waiting for busy mentors/managers to get back to him with feedback. These tasks should be easy to jump in and out of and can be done fairly independently. Often these are the back burner items that your staff has on the list of “When I have extra time, I will do X, Y and Z.” By providing a filler work list, you will keep your intern busy, shorten your team’s mounting to do list and boost overall morale since everyone is pitching in.
3. Measure and meet. The greatest overlooked intern management tool is the performance review. Now that you have a fully developed job description with multiple layers of work, make sure that you set measurement standards and timelines in place. When you communicate what is expected and how progress will be measured, set a couple of dates on your calendar to review performance. Although the concept of a “performance review” may sound daunting, it is the best way to motivate your intern and make sure the internship is mutually successful. Remember, students are graded often in school, so they know what their professors expect and when they will be tested. Using that same platform at work helps to clarify expectations and increase overall productivity. Performance assessment should not be a negative. It is actually a motivating tool that helps a student reach a desired outcome.
While there are many articles that warn of the perils of managing millennials and the challenges of the trophy generation, in general, the college students who will work at your company this summer are just young professionals wanting to learn. The most positive learning environment, for all of us, includes clear instruction, defined expectations, performance measurement and conversations to answer the question: “How am I doing?” It can also include some outside-the-comfort-zone experiences, like having lunch with the CEO, and a little fun, if possible. Upfront preparation along with a measure and meet office culture are proven best practices to get the most from this summer’s internship experience for intern and employer alike. Few things can build your company’s brand as a desired employer as well as happy, engaged college students returning to campus with stories of what they accomplished while in your internship program. Don’t miss a simple way to get such a high-impact return.