How to provide good internships
Interns are one of the very best sources of new talent for your company. They can make useful contributions to your work and provide an opportunity for your less experienced employees to develop their managerial skills, but you must be prepared to properly support them.
Why take on an intern?
On 3rd July 1985, Back to the Future opened in cinemas and Marty McFly got into the DeLorean for the first time. That same summer Dennis Muilenburg, a 21 year-old aerospace engineering student, drove his 1982 Chevrolet Monte Carlo just short of 2,000 miles from his dorm room at Iowa State University across the Rocky Mountains to an internship at the commercial aircraft division of The Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington. On 1st July 2015, almost 30 years later to the day, he was appointed its CEO.
Internships are one of the very best ways to find and develop new talent for your company. Most of the hires you make will be on the basis of a CV, a covering letter, and half an hour spent together in an interview. With an intern you get to spend eight weeks or more seeing exactly what they’re made of, whether they gel with your team, and how you can help them develop.
What’s more, if they enjoy their experience then they tell their friends, boosting your company’s reputation and increasing the number of good applicants you get for future openings.
Taking on interns is not just a recruitment exercise. A good intern can make useful contributions to your business. Not only can they accomplish things themselves, they can also free up your full-time employees from minor tasks so that they can focus on the important work that requires their expertise. Managing an intern is also an excellent opportunity for your less experienced employees to develop their managerial and project planning skills.
Ask not what your intern can do for you, but what you can do for your intern
These things are all important in making a business case to your boss, but they aren’t the real reason you should have interns. The real reason is that if work experience is something you look for when recruiting junior staff, then you have a duty to offer opportunities for people to gain that experience.
Taking on an intern is a way of giving back to the community and developing the skills of the next generation. Demanding experience whilst simultaneously refusing to provide it is a guaranteed route to future recruitment problems.
If you’re feeling particularly altruistic, then don’t hire the best applicant. Instead, pick one who you think would most benefit from the experience, pick a diamond in the rough and help them to shine.
It’s low risk, and, as Dennis Muilenburg’s story shows, can be very high reward.
Internships are about learning
An internship is first and foremost a learning experience. For many young people, it will be their first foray into the world of work, and very likely a career defining moment.
Some of your interns will fall in love with what you do, others will decide it’s not for them. They may end up joining your company next year, they may end up joining in thirty years having worked for a dozen of your competitors, or they may go and work in another sector entirely.
The right metric of success for an internship is not what the intern achieved, but how much they learned – about the job, about the sector, and about themselves. Your job is to help them learn as much as they can. If they help add value to your company at the same time, that’s a bonus, but it shouldn’t be your only goal.
Sometimes the benefits an intern brings will outweigh the costs, other times they will not. Every intern is different, and that’s half the fun. New people bring new ideas and new ways of solving problems.
Before you take one on, make sure you’ve got the capacity, both for supervising them and for planning their project. Properly supporting an intern will take somewhere between half a day and one day a week, more at the start, less as they get familiar with their responsibilities. This breaks down into an hour or so every day spent checking in with them, answering their questions, reviewing their work, and providing them with feedback.
You also need to have the budget. Your interns must be paid and must be paid fairly. Poorly paid internships exclude students from less advantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to go without an income for several months. 1 In most cases they are also illegal because interns are counted as workers under employment law. 2 That means they must be paid at least minimum wage, though they are not entitled to holiday.
At minimum you should be paying enough to cover living expenses (rent, travel, food etc.), and you should strongly consider giving them a few days of holiday too. It will make your internship more attractive and help prevent burnout. The statutory 28 days of annual leave works out to about five days for an eight week internship, which should give them enough time to go to Glastonbury (and recover from it afterwards).
Make you recruitment process clear
In general your intern recruitment process can be pretty similar to your normal recruitment processes (and we have some other guides on that). The main difference should be in your expectations. Don’t ask for the same things in an intern that you’d expect from a normal applicant, especially experience that they can’t have got yet.
Make sure you are especially clear about the process because things that will be obvious to most applicants will not be to those for whom this is their very first job application. Applying will be a learning experience for successful and unsuccessful candidates alike. They’re going to be more nervous and make more mistakes than normal candidates, so take that into account when you’re assessing them.
Be sure to spell out exactly what they’ll learn through the experience and how they’ll contribute to your company, as this will help you stand out from the competition. It’s much easier to be specific in an advert for an internship than for a regular job because you know exactly what they’ll be working on the whole time they’re with you.
Provide as much feedback as you can to those who are unsuccessful. Giving feedback is one of the single most impactful ways of helping people improve. 3 See our guide on giving feedback (and how to cope if you’ve got 100 applicants).
Good onboarding is key
Once you’ve picked your intern, make sure you onboard them properly. This may well be their first job, so they won’t have previous experience to go off.
If your recruitment process is months before the job actually starts, then stay in contact with your intern during the gap. Give as much notice as possible about the planned start date and get any preparatory paperwork out of the way early.
Check your internal lead times and plan accordingly. If it takes six weeks for your IT department to arrange a laptop, then make sure they get six weeks notice of your new hire. There’s nothing worse than spending three weeks of an eight week placement unable to do anything.
As well as the usual onboarding information about email accounts and who they’ll be working with, provide a primer on your company’s work, your key products, and any internal or industry acronyms that everyone is assumed to know. If you host a lot of interns, consider creating an internship handbook (you can even get an intern to help create it).
If you’ve got a big office or team, provide a map and a directory. When you’re given a whistle stop tour of names and rooms on day one, it can be very hard to keep track.
Set some goals
The first week will be about settling in, getting familiar with the team, and setting goals.
Ask them what their goals are (this is a useful thing to ask in advance of starting). They might already have an idea about skills they’re keen to develop, or they might need you to make some suggestions. These goals will help you decide which tasks they should focus on and what kind of support to give them.
Have a clearly defined project
Exactly what kind of project is best for them will depend on your business, but the core components are always the same. A good project is low stakes, largely self-contained, and involves creating something new. It should also push your intern just slightly outside their comfort zone.
There are things you can do, there are things you can’t do, and then there’s a bit in the middle, the things you can do with a bit of support. This is the sweet spot that you want to hit. In teaching, this is known as the ‘zone of proximal development’, and it’s where all the good learning happens. By the end of the internship, the circle of things that your intern can do should be slightly expanded and the zone of proximal development pushed slightly outwards.
Ideal projects for interns are things you’ve had on the backlog for a while, things that would be useful to have, aren’t important enough to be anyone’s priority, and are internal rather than customer-facing. Your intern won’t be stepping on anyone else’s toes, and if they make a hash of things, it’s not a big problem. Anything that means they’ll have to wait on responses from other people is a no go because they’ll be stuck waiting with nothing to do in the meantime.
If your focus is hardware, get them to design a simple component, perhaps a tool for your workshop. For my work experience at 16 I was asked to design a housing for a polarising filter and learned loads about CAD in the process.
If your focus is software, then something like an extension to an existing tool is ideal because they can use your existing code as a starting point. In my first summer internship at university I added some visualisations to a trajectory modelling tool.
You should have a clear plan for the project, broken down into manageable stages with expected timelines. Each should ideally be useful on its own so that if they complete some but not all of the work they’ve still achieved something valuable.
Each stage should have a clear deliverable or milestone. These help your intern to self-evaluate whether they are working at a reasonable pace, and allows them to work independently with confidence. You should also have an idea of what technical and non-technical skills they’ll be developing along the way.
Provide just enough support, and no more than that
Before you share your plan with your intern, try to help them develop it themselves. Tell them the end goal you have in mind, and get them to think about what some sensible milestones might be. They get to develop vital project planning skills and gain more ownership of their project. If they come up with something that roughly matches your plan, then let them run with that. If they get stuck, then you can share your plan instead.
Use that same approach throughout the project, with support dialled up or down based on how confident and able you feel they are. The more independent thinking they can do, the better, but don’t leave them floundering.
Lack of scaffolding means they will get stuck. That is a good thing, because it’s exactly what happens at work every day. When it does happen, work through the problem solving process with them, explain your approach and the things that you consider. Try not to tell them the answer until you have to. If they come to you with a problem, ask them how they think they should approach it or if they have any suggestions on a solution. Develop their problem solving skills so that they can figure out the answer themselves. They might need a little prompting to start thinking along the right lines, but once they get there they’ll learn more and enjoy the experience more.
The hardest thing is to let them make mistakes. It can be really tempting to jump in at the first sign that they’re struggling and provide the answers, because it feels like you’re doing the right thing. This is when you have to remember that an internship is a learning experience, and some of the best learning happens when people are in the zone of proximal development, when they are really challenged, and when they make and then learn from mistakes. If you come to rescue them too soon, they won’t have an opportunity to develop their own problem solving skills and they’ll always need rescuing.
Sometimes a project won’t work out. That might be because of a mistake your intern made, or for reasons that are outside their control. If they made an error, make sure they understand it so that they won’t make it again. If they didn’t, make sure they understand that too. That is as important a lesson for them to learn as anything else.
Let them see the whole business
Even though their project should be self-contained, there should still be plenty of opportunities for your intern to engage with your team and to see other parts of the business. As much as possible try to treat them like just another employee; include them in team meetings, value their input, and invite them to join in social events.
Weekly coffees are a great way to expose them to other areas of work. Each week you pair your intern up with someone new for a 20 minute chat over coffee. This could even include people outside of your business if you have a particularly close relationship with a customer, supplier, or other partner. They get to learn far more about what you do and the kind of job they might like to work in than if they spend all their time with just one team.
The first couple of these chats are likely to be a bit awkward, so bear that in mind and make sure your colleagues are forewarned. It’s worth arming both sides with some conversation topics like:
- For the intern to ask:
- What do you do?
- What made you choose this job?
- What do you wish you’d known at my age?
- To ask the intern:
- What made you pick this internship?
- How are you enjoying the internship so far?
- What have you learned?
Another good approach is to have your intern spend a few days or half-days shadowing people in different disciplines. This can be more valuable for them than short chats, but they can also get in the way more, and a day of meetings is not all that interesting to shadow. Check with your colleagues if they’ve got anything coming up that would make for an interesting shadowing experience.
If there are other interns in your business, then opportunities for them to meet each other are great, but don’t schedule pointless internship bonding activities. Nobody enjoys them and they’re usually a waste of time.
Support actively, not passively
An intern is going to be a lot less familiar with both your field and the workplace in general than a normal employee, and they’re also likely to lack the confidence to speak up when they’re stuck. That means you need to be proactive in supporting them and watching for problems.
Check in with them regularly without micromanaging – a quick "how is it going/are you stuck on anything?" over lunch or a chat will head off most issues. This is especially important if you are working remotely. Remember interns have no backlog of tasks to be getting on with if they’re blocked on their project, so if they aren't working on that, they are probably stuck twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do.
Your intern should have a supervisor and a buddy. The supervisor’s job is to manage the intern, ensuring their project is progressing and they have all the support they need. The buddy’s role is more informal. When you’re brand new and trying to impress, it can be pretty intimidating to ask your boss anything for fear of looking stupid. An intern’s buddy is someone they can run ‘stupid’ questions by and get advice from. Ideally they should be someone junior and closer in age to the intern. The buddy shouldn’t be involved in any performance review process.
Give good feedback
As well as an opportunity to learn new skills, internships are about confidence building. If you’ve ever experienced imposter syndrome as an adult, then you’ll know how important it is to feel confident in the workplace.
Give plenty of positive feedback wherever possible. That doesn’t mean you should be insincere or praise bad work, it just means that you need to be slightly more explicit than you would be with a normal employee. In a lot of areas, your intern isn’t going to know what good work looks like yet, so you’ll need to spell it out for them.
If their conduct or performance is less than what you’d expect, then you shouldn’t shy away from telling them that, but you should be compassionate about it. You want to avoid what leadership coach Kim Scott calls ‘ruinous empathy’, when you’re “so fixated on not hurting someone’s feelings in the moment that you don’t tell someone something they’d be better off knowing in the long run”.
You also want to avoid the opposite, being needlessly harsh. Remember that at the beginning of a career a few words can have a huge impact. Crucially, be careful not to say anything that excludes them from this career path. I once changed shoes in front of my supervisor during an engineering internship and he told me that my socks (which were plain black with brightly-coloured toes) were “bankers’ socks” rather than engineers’ socks. I don’t think it was meant maliciously, but it’s stuck with me ever since.
To tread the middle ground, focus your feedback on the how not the what. Don’t say “This is a really poorly written report.”, explain how it’s poorly written: “I found some bits quite difficult to read because the sentences were very long.”, and follow that up with a way to help them improve: “I want you to try to write the same report, but with half as many words.”
Your intern might still be a bit upset that you didn’t think their work was very good, but they will also know how to improve it for next time. When they come back to you with a much shorter report, that’s when you pile on the positive reinforcement.
You can make giving feedback less painful by laying some groundwork before they share something with you. Tell them in advance what you’re going to do – something like “After your presentation I’m going to give you one piece of positive feedback and one thing you could improve on”. That way they won’t feel like you giving them negative feedback is a bad sign, but something that would happen regardless of their performance.
Wrap up well
At the end of the internship, get your intern to do a report and/or presentation summing up what they’ve achieved and what they’ve learned. Be sure to provide a template, an outline of the key points you want them to cover, and an example of a good report from a previous project. Having to present what they’ve learned forces them to reflect on the experience and to practise their communication skills.
You should also have a performance review conversation with them. This doesn’t have to be very formal and shouldn’t make them feel like they’re being judged; link back to the goals and plan you set at the start, and make this a conversation about growth and reflection rather than assessment:
- How do you feel about your performance on this internship?
- What went well?
- What didn’t go so well?
- What do you think has been the biggest area of growth for you? A time where you thought, “Woah, I really got better at this” or “I really learned something?”
- What skills have you developed?
- If you had to do this internship over again, what would you do differently?
The final chat is also a good opportunity to talk about their CV. Give them some advice about how to describe the work they’ve done and offer to be a reference when they apply for their next job. If there’s anything that you think could be improved about their CV, then let them know that too.
Make sure you also get some feedback from them. This is an opportunity for you to develop your line management skills and to improve the experience for the next intern. Some good questions include:
- What do you wish I’d told you about at the start?
- Do you feel like you got enough feedback on your work?
- Do you feel like you got enough direction on what you should be working on?
If they were a great intern that you might want to hire, then stay in touch with them throughout the year with a couple of catch ups and make sure they know that you’d like to have them back.
Having an intern is a lot like having a child. I’ve not had one myself, but I’m reliably informed that you shouldn’t have one unless you’re prepared, that they will delight, surprise, and infuriate you, and that ultimately it's a very rewarding experience. After all, your next intern might end up as your CEO.
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