Build Your Internship Program
Starting a new internship program for your organization? Looking for ways to improve upon your existing program? We encourage you to use the Manager’s Toolkit for Building a Successful Internship Program, available below.
Let us know how we can help! Contact our Employer Relations team if we can answer a question or provide additional insight as you create and refine your internship program.
Internship DefinitionInternships are defined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) as: “a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths, while simultaneously giving employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.” Internships range in duration from a month or two to an entire semester or more. They may or may not carry credit and may be paid or unpaid based on the Department of Labor criteria.
The Anatomy of an Internship
An internship is any carefully monitored meaningful learning experience in which an individual has intentional professional goals and reflects actively on what he or she is accomplishing throughout the experience. Developing an internship program is an excellent strategy for investing in your organization’s future successes, often leading to the discovery of future colleagues and leaders.
A typical internship:
- Includes intentional learning objectives that are structured into the experience and supervised by a professional with relevant and related background in the field.
- Promotes academic, career and/or personal development.
- Balances the intern’s learning goals with the organization’s needs.
- Lasts three months (typical time frame), though shorter/longer internships can certainly be arranged between student/employer.
- May be part‐time or full‐time.
- Involves industry related and soft skill development (e.g., oral/written communication, teamwork, critical thinking).
- May be carefully monitored and evaluated for academic credit.
- Provides adequate supervision in a reasonably safe environment with the necessary tools to perform agreed upon tasks and work toward learning goals for the duration of the internship.
An internship is not:
- Free help.
- Meant to replace an employee.
- More than 20% administrative work (filing, covering phone, errands).
Benefits for Employers
One of the more significant advantages to providing internships is the opportunity to select and develop your future talent. You have the opportunity to evaluate and screen potential employees prior to making a full‐time position offer, which leads to financial savings. Employers have reported converting more than half of eligible interns into full‐time hires. If hired in a permanent position, previous interns assimilate faster to their new roles and have shorter learning curves than external hires.
- Provide freedom for professional staff to pursue creative or more advanced projects.
- Increase staff retention rate.
- Assist an organization in application of the latest strategies and techniques in the field.
- Maintain connections with colleges and increase visibility on campus.
- Recruit other students and generate enthusiasm for the organization.
- Create awareness of the field for future hires and give back to the community by teaching the prospective workforce.
Benefits for Interns
Students are seeking opportunities that allow them to explore their interests and provide real‐world experiences. A meaningful, purposeful internship program will:
- Ensure the assignment of challenging projects and tasks.
- Provide projects that complement academic programs and/or career interests.
- Give broad exposure to the organization (remember: this is a chance for them to develop personally and explore career possibilities).
- Provide adequate, reliable, and regular supervision and mentoring.
- Ensure interns are keeping pace and accomplishing goals.
- Enable the intern to establish a professional network.
- Provide practical experience that the intern can apply to future endeavors.
Before the Internship: Learning Goals
Before the start of the internship, we recommend that the supervisor develop a list of learning goals for the intern. Learning goals serve as the academic and professional roadmap for the intern’s time with your organization, and in defining these goals, you’ll be clearly identifying learning objectives and methods for accomplishing goals. Creating such a list will also set the stage for a discussion of workplace requirements, intern responsibilities, and hours necessary (to earn credit). We ask our supervisors to take the time to meet with interns during the first week of an internship to discuss and negotiate learning goals, as well as answer any questions or address issues needing clarification.
Internship Kickoff: Orientation
It is very important that interns be warmly welcomed and introduced throughout your organization, just as you would welcome any new full‐time employee. Not only are interns new to your organization, but in many cases, they are new to the professional world of work. Students may be unfamiliar with the activities, environment and objectives of your organization. Even though interns may have worked part‐time to support their education, these experiences may not have exposed them to organizational politics, the need for confidentiality, the importance of teamwork, or the profit‐making nature of business. Be sure to address these issues and other information about the organization during your orientation and training. The sooner an intern understands your organization and how it operates, the sooner he or she can assume assigned responsibilities and contribute. Expectations can vary based on the size of your organization, but in general, be sure to review:
- Hours (including when to arrive/leave for the day; how many hours expected per week)
- Dress code
- Overall responsibilities
- Absenteeism/tardiness and how this is handled by the organization
- Safety regulations and requirements
Designing Your Internship Program
Prior to hiring an intern, an employer must understand how interns will fit within the company’s overall framework and culture. Since organizations vary in age, size, industry, and product, so too will interns’ roles and activities. Here are some questions that may determine which kind of program will work best for you:
- What does your organization hope to gain from and internship program?
- Is your organization looking to fulfill a need on a specific project?
- Will this internship encompass one major project or entail a variety of small projects?
- What are the tools and workspace necessary for interns?
- Which talents, academic background and experiences are you seeking in an intern? (Decide on qualifications early in the process to help you select the best candidate.)
- Who will be primarily responsible for the intern(s)? Will that person be a mentor, supervisor, or both?
Role of an Internship Supervisor
It’s important to identify a supervisor for your intern(s) who will familiarize them with the organization, provide assignments and serve as a point of contact for questions. It’s recommended that the intern supervisor be an expert in the type of work the intern(s) will be performing, so as to provide appropriate guidance for assignments. An intern supervisor’s responsibilities typically include:
- Taking part in the internship application, screening, and interview process
- Developing learning goals
- Conducting intern orientation
- Meeting regularly with intern(s) to evaluate performance and if needs/goals are being met
- Continually assessing the internship program’s success; refining program as necessary
Role of a MentorIn addition to the supervisor, a mentor may assist with the transition into this new learning environment. Mentors guide interns by answering questions related to personal and professional growth, sharing career knowledge, and helping interns develop their professional network (e.g., by making introductions, providing info about career development/networking events).
Paying an Intern
As you construct your program, keep in mind:
- Wages for most internship opportunities are usually determined before the intern is hired and are not typically negotiated.
- Consider paying consistent wages to all interns within each department.
- Students in technical fields are generally paid more than those in non technical fields.
- Pay for interns often varies by location, type of industry, size of organization, etc.
If you are deciding between paid and unpaid internships, it is important to know if the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act applies to your organization. The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act restricts an employer’s use of unpaid interns. This Act applies to businesses with two or more employees directly engaged in interstate commerce as well as annual sales of $500,000 or more. Interns who qualify as trainees do not have to be paid. If you find you cannot pay your intern, you must meet these six criteria for determining trainee status (as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor):
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Other Forms of Benefits
Offering benefits may provide incentives for talented students to accept one internship position over another and/or increase the interns’ commitment during the experience. These could include:
- Opportunity for academic credit from school
- Housing assistance for those who relocate
- Professional development
- Networking events
- Accumulated internship time resulting in benefits for those who convert to full‐time employees after graduation
- Paid holidays (if already receiving compensation)
- Tuition reimbursement
Employers, interns, parents and colleges/universities should be aware of insurance considerations:
- Accident/liability insurance: provided by the intern/parent/guardian (some organizations may require the school to provide liability insurance).
- Automobile accident insurance: provided by the intern/parent/guardian.
- Health/life insurance: provided by the intern/parent/guardian.
- Worker’s compensation: does not apply for interns participating in unpaid internship experiences, but if injured at the internship site, should be covered by the intern/parent/guardian personal insurance. (Paid internships require that students be covered by worker’s compensation.)
Adapted from the Rhode Island Employer Guide to Structuring a Successful Internship Program