How To Create an Engaging Internship Program: A Guide for Employers

Employers: this one’s for you. Every month, I write a column for interns on how to maximize their professional development opportunities and ask professionals to chime in—but this month, I decided to turn things around.

This installment of Intern Talk is different than any of the previous ones: I’m giving interns the floor to voice their compliments and concerns from previous internships and give advice to employers looking to build or revamp their internship programs.

Why is creating an engaging internship program important?

With so many areas needing investment, an internship program may seem like a lesser priority item. Internship programs, though, deserve to be developed with care and seen as a worthy investment.

Engaging programs may attract great interns who, after they leave, will refer you to other talented interns. Sooner than later, your internships will be highly sought after and you will be attracting top students in your area, if not from around the country.

JamalEdeen Barghouti, president of PRSSA Nevada, interned this summer for Estipona Group, a virtual agency in Reno, Nevada. From his first day at Estipona Group, Jamal was invited to client meetings and included in critical decisions regarding strategy and campaign development.
JamalEdeen Barghouti, president of PRSSA Nevada, interned this summer for Estipona Group, a virtual agency in Reno, Nevada. From his first day at Estipona Group, Jamal was invited to client meetings and included in critical decisions regarding strategy and campaign development.

“When you have a great internship program, it helps to build your brand as a great work environment,” said JamalEdeen Barghouti, president of University of Nevada, Reno’s Chapter. “Having the brand of a great working environment attracts the best employees; hopefully employees with passion for their craft and for what they do.”

Engaging programs keep interns, well, engaged. The more invested interns are in their work, the more they will contribute to your business—and I don’t know of many employers who don’t want another team member with all hands on deck.

What keeps interns engaged?

Interns want to feel like they are a part of the organization. Every intern with whom I’ve spoken praises the internships they have had where their employers gave them challenging work and allowed them to interact with clients.

“The most outstanding internship I’ve had was with Capstrat, Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina,” said Hailey Gerhard, vice president of programming at the University of Florida Chapter. “The healthcare communications team kept me engaged by involving me in all aspects of the strategic planning process—from creative brainstorms to content development to analytic reviews.”

Barghouti echoes Gerhard’s comments, adding that he felt instantly valued when his employer, virtual advertising agency Estipona Group in Reno, allowed him to attend client meetings on his first week.

“A lot of times, interns are stuck doing menial tasks and grunt work, but I was asked to help develop strategy around new campaigns. It was a great experience,” Barghouti said. “It struck the perfect balance between responsibility and education.”

Tyler with 834 Design & Marketing Founder Kim Bode and Internship Supervisor Adrienne Wallace.
Tyler with 834 Design & Marketing Founder Kim Bode and Internship Supervisor Adrienne Wallace.

Tyler Lehner, president of the Grand Valley State University Chapter, said that his internship supervisor created a productive work environment where questions were welcomed—a sentiment expressed by the others interviewed for this article.

“I didn’t experience those feelings new interns often face: intimidation, inferiority, incompetence, etc.,” Lehner said. “Up front, it was made clear that I had actual, real-world responsibilities. No messing around.”

What doesn’t work for interns?

Don’t expect your intern to have full knowledge of the organization and industry best practices. An internship is first and foremost a professional development opportunity, which means giving students the chance to learn from the full-time staff and ask questions as needed.

“It’s important to find an internship that will place you juxtaposed a professional who can help to further your education,” said Barghouti in regards to what was missing in some of  his previous internships.

That’s not to say that your interns don’t possess valuable skills or should not be able to complete work independently—after all, you likely hired them for those reasons.

“After having a few good and productive internships under my belt, I’ve realized that employers don’t

often take advantage of their interns. We know things,” Lehner said. “Companies are missing out on a resource that has the ability and knowledge to contribute to business if they fail to utilize their interns for real works. It’s disappointing because internships benefit the company as well, not just the student.”

The most common disappointment the interviewed interns expressed about previous “unsuccessful” internships was not learning additional skills through that experience.

“It was the fact that I was being used as a physical asset, not for the skills that I have been developing through university,” said Lehner about why a previous internship of his was not valuable to his professional development. “I was not gaining any experience or practice through this position.”

What can I be doing to build an engaging internship program?

Young professionals  are always told they should look to continually evolve and push themselves further than ever before, and internship programs shouldn’t be any different. Look at your current program and see what can be improved.

Do interns feel like they are an integral part of the organization? Can they ask questions without feeling like they are bothering the staff? Will they be walking away with more skills than they came in with?

If you’re looking to attract the best interns, think twice about the answers to those questions. And don’t be afraid to ask your interns what they think; their perspective may be the most valuable to you as you begin making improvements to your program—after all, they’re the ones who are actually experiencing it first-hand.

If you’d like to further discuss your internship program or want more information on how to post to the Internship Center, contact Veronica Mingrone, national vice president of career services, at vmingrone.prssa@gmail.com.

“Intern Talk” is a guest column produced by Veronica Mingrone, 2015–2016 vice president of career services. The column covers various aspects of the public relations industry, giving PRSSA members the tools to secure internships and make the most of their professional experiences. For more career resources, visit the PRSSACareer Manual and Internship Center.

Veronica is a senior public relations major at the University of Florida. Follow Veronica on Twitter @veronica_min or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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