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Just how important have internships become when it comes to recruiting and hiring today? According to a new survey released in March from the Chronicle of Higher Education, internships actually topped the list of critical factors in hiring. Internships ranked as "the most important thing employers look for when evaluating a recent college graduate – more important than where they went to college, the major they pursued, and even their grade point average.” 

But creating and managing a strong internship program that helps develop and groom great talent is easier said than done. Despite their potential value to a business, many companies don't manage intern programs with enough rigor or focus – or in come cases, sufficient pay for the interns themselves. Mark Babbitt, CEO of Youtern, a Carson City, NV based company that provides a searchable database to match organizations with qualified entry-level employees, shared his insights on what he considers the core essentials of a solid program.   

Set Clear Expectations on Both Sides

When setting out to develop an internship program, managers need to establish clear expectations – not just about how the company hopes to benefit but how the internship experience can be a valuable and attractive opportunity for college grads likely to become prospects for full-time positions. Organizations can better ensure the success of their interns by outlining goals for each role from the very beginning. This means no more sending your interns out for coffee and leaving them otherwise unengaged in meaningful work.

Babbitt recommends companies give interns legitimate responsibilities that both empower and teach. "A company’s role is to help that intern learn marketable skills,” he says.

Build Recognition Into the Program

Recognition is vital for helping interns develop skills and grow within a company. Company-wide recognition can raise awareness for internship programs internally and help your staff get involved in fostering relationships with the interns. Interns who work hard at completing their work are generally proud of their accomplishments – calling them out at a company meeting or recognizing them at a function will make them feel appreciated and incentivized to do their best work. Young people desire to see recognition for work well done and they want opportunities to take on responsibility,” says Babbitt. 

Taking advantage of the opportunity to foster the growth of future employees through internship programs can have measurable rates of return in recruiting and hiring. Through successful internship programs, companies receive access to enthusiastic young workers, aspiring to be future employees. Fostering a relationship through recognition-based activities will help young workers take pride in what they do and how they do it. (This applies to your full-time employees too, naturally!)

Appoint Mentors to Each Intern

Mentorship is another valuable component to successful intern programs – providing an intern a "boss" who can do more than just manage the work. “It's highly important that interns get the mentorship they need so that they are left with something marketable,” says Babbitt. “Anyone will volunteer to work for free if their career can benefit from it, it's really a very entrepreneurial attitude from young people to work for free for twelve weeks just to show a company how dedicated they are.”

Mentorships have proven to be one of the driving motivations for young people to enter into an unpaid (or low paying) internship; they can also strengthen company loyalty and can lead to full-time hires. “Companies should ask themselves how they enable mentor relationships and what can be improved in that process," Babbitt says. "But whatever you do, don’t call it a mentorship program.” Apparently, just as the definition of intern has been muddied, so has the meaning of a mentor.

Whatever you call it, a well-organized program can have lasting benefits for intern and employer alike.  Does your organization take on interns?  If so, what are your experiences with how to develop a mutually rewarding internship program?