Business Tools

Training the Next-Generation Workforce: How to Make an Internship Program Outstanding

By Rebecca Wolfe

An internship can be a cost-effective way to recruit and identify/evaluate potential employees.

How can your industry help attract and “train up” the next-generation workforce? One way is to connect with colleges and universities to offer paid or unpaid internships to qualified, enthusiastic students. There is great value in offering these opportunities to students who are evaluating which industries they should pursue. And it’s also an effective way for a company to identify candidates for future employment; moreover, it can infuse a company with new energy and innovative ideas.

But how do you structure an internship to help ensure success for your company and an intern? Let’s take a look at some of the fundamentals of a structured internship program:

What Is an Internship?

An internship is a structured and monitored work or service experience for a student. During the internship, the student should have designated learning goals and be able to reflect upon the entire internship experience in terms of the knowledge they have gained. Both the student and the organization should benefit from an internship program. Internships may contain repetitive tasks, but must include at least one substantial project where students can offer solutions to a real business problem.

Why Should I Host Interns?

  • It can be a cost-effective way to recruit and identify/evaluate potential employees.
  • Highly motivated students with appropriate direction will bring fresh ideas and new perspectives to your organization.
  • It allows students to gain real-world work experience.
  • Interns will become advocates for your organization.

What Should My Intern be Responsible For?

  • Be as specific as possible with job duties and responsibilities as your intern will need and want structure. This can be accomplished by developing a written job description and reviewing all expected work outcomes with the intern on a regular basis.

What Should the Intern Get Out of the Job?

  • The intern should solve some type of business problem for your organization, as well as familiarize themselves with the overall efforts of the organization.
  • The intern should accomplish challenging, but realistic responsibilities.

How to Get Started

1. Establish goals and create a plan for your internship program:

  • What would you like the intern to do?
  • If the internship is a paid position, will the intern be paid an hourly wage?
  • Who will supervise the intern?
  • What kind of workspace will the intern have?

2. Develop a job description:

  • Will the student have a specific project you would like them to work on?
  • Provide an overview of what your organization does so potential interns will better understand your business and industry.
  • List potential projects, responsibilities and activities for your intern.
  • Determine a possible arrangement for the structure of the internship.

3. Recruitment and selection:

  • If you’re interested in hiring an intern with a specific major, it’s usually best to contact the campus’ central career services office or specific academic unit (i.e. Business or Engineering).
  • Determine important individual attributes for success on the job and decide on how the intern’s job performance will be evaluated. Communicate with the intern regularly on his or her progress and share ideas about ways to improve.
  • Assemble a list of relevant and legal behavioral-based interview questions. (For example: Tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team to accomplish an important goal or when you made a mistake. How did you handle those situations?)
4. Develop learning outcomes:
  • Once you have selected your intern, the intern should work to provide real solutions to business problems. Clearly outline what the learning outcomes are and give examples. For example, “Gain a greater overall understanding of the industry. How to work and communicate effectively on a team. Learn the basic framework for developing a marketing campaign.”

5. Onboard/orientation process:

  • Have an established work area for your intern with phone, computer and e-mail access already set up when he or she begins work.
  • Give the intern a solid overview of your organization, such as an organizational chart.
  • Show him or her around the office and introduce them to as many people as possible.
  • Clearly communicate policies and expectations for your intern.

6. Evaluations:

  • Throughout the process, give your intern substantial feedback about his or her performance.

7. Major project requirement:

  • It is recommended that the student complete one major project during their internship experience.
8. Sample tasks and projects:
  • Develop an implementation plan to use technology (i.e. webcasts) as a way to improve communication and determine the most cost-effective uses of technology.
  • Create marketing or business plans.
  • Analyze data and outline how to communicate it in a meaningful way.
  • Develop an implementation strategy for social media use.
  • Research and propose new ways to reach target markets for new-product marketing.
  • Research and establish network contacts to develop new business.

Legal Issues Regarding Unpaid Internships

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay employees at least minimum wage for all hours of work performed. One exception is if the worker is considered a “learner/trainer.” The U.S. Department of Labor has developed six criteria for determining if a worker falls into this “unpaid” category.

The criteria are:

  • The training, even though it includes actual operation of the employer’s facilities, is similar to training that would be given in a vocational school.
  • The training is for the benefit of the student.
  • The student does not displace regular employees and works under the close observation of a regular employee or supervisor.
  • The employer provides the training and derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the student. Occasionally, employer operations may actually be impeded by the training.
  • The student is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period.
  • The employer and the student understand that the student is not entitled to wages for the time spent training.
* Rebecca Wolfe is the internship coordinator with the University of Missouri's Trulaske College of Business. She can be reached at