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Maximizing internship opportunities in a tight labor market

What do Oprah Winfrey, professional golfer Tom Lehman and California Senator Dianne Feinstein have in common? They all completed internships. Winfrey began her career interning at WTVF in Nashville, Lehman learned how to organize fundraisers as an intern in the athletic department at the University of Minnesota, and Feinstein spent a year as an intern at The Coro Foundation.

For years, internships, co-ops and apprentice programs have been an integral part of the recruitment process for some organizations. These programs offer short-term supervised work experience usually related to a student’s major field of study. They give employers a “previewing” opportunity offering an effectiveness unmatched by other recruitment efforts.

“Internships are more popular than ever,” says Al Cabral, Director of Internships at Nazareth College of Rochester. “Our program has grown 40 percent in the last five years, and a wider diversity of students are now taking part.” What once attracted primarily business majors is now appealing to a broad cross-section of students, he adds, providing expanded opportunities for employers.

Traditionally, colleges have defined an internship as a part-time, supervised academic experience for college credit, while a co-op is a full-time, paid work experience that alternates with semesters of class work. Apprenticeships generally refer to learning opportunities in the skilled trades.

More recently, however, the lines have become blurred, Cabral says. Employers are less concerned about what an arrangement is called, and more interested in finding students who can contribute to their organizations.

In creating their internship programs – including deciding whether the work will be full- or part-time, and paid or unpaid — employers don’t have carte blanche. They must carefully consider the needs of the students and the requirements of the colleges involved, as well as compliance with all applicable laws.

Why offer internships?

If ever an economy demanded a flexible and creative approach to hiring, it’s this one. Even with recent downsizings, a shortage of quality candidates across all fields persists. This summer, many employers are strengthening their connection to colleges through internship programs. These programs provide employers with:

1. A temporary supply of talented, trainable labor. Interns are ideal for providing support on long-neglected, special projects.

2. An opportunity to screen interns, with an eye toward offering them full-time employment after college. This “previewing” also allows the intern to gain a realistic picture of the organization. If you choose not to offer the intern long-term employment, you can simply end the relationship after the agreed-upon period — generally without unemployment claims or wrongful termination suits.

3. Access to cutting-edge knowledge. Students today are exposed to the most current information and technology in their fields – information that growing organizations need to thrive.

4. A positive community image. Not only do internship programs increase company-name recognition at colleges and with students, but they also help to portray the organization as one that’s committed to helping prepare students for the world of work.

To pay or not to pay?

It’s a point of debate among educators whether interns should be paid, given that they’re also receiving college credit, says Mary Wadhams, Career Services Coordinator at St. John Fisher College.

But in this competitive labor market, employers often insist they must pay interns in order to attract talent, particularly in high-demand fields like engineering, computer science and information technology.

If you choose to offer unpaid internships, understand that federal, state and perhaps local laws will require you to meet a set of criteria to ensure compliance. In general, unpaid internships are legal if the student does not displace paid employees, earns course credits, receives training, and benefits from the experience.

Going electronic

As the trend toward on-line job matching flourishes, more employers are posting internship openings on their company websites, the websites of colleges they’re targeting and/or commercial sites like or For Internet-savvy students or those seeking positions outside the local area, on-line postings offer greater access and the opportunity to research the companies they’re interested in contacting.

Cabral cautions, however, that internships posted on commercial or employer sites may not necessarily meet a college’s requirement for credit. Students and employers must be prepared to work with the student’s academic adviser to avoid creating an internship that fails to meet academic standards.

Factors in a successful internship program

Organizations that have built effective methods for employing interns generally have incorporated most or all of the following:

1. Careful planning, buy-in and documentation. Senior managers must be committed to the internship program’s success and supportive of its goals.

2. A proactive recruitment plan. Internship programs are most effective when focused around schools where you can develop a reputation and a long-term relationship with the professors and the students. If any of your employees are alumni of the colleges you’re targeting, ask them to act as ambassadors. You’re likely to find such personal approaches more effective than advertising in local newspapers and trade journals.

3. A realistic perspective. Unless your firm has very high name recognition, you may find it difficult to land interns from the top technology schools. Recognize that students from local colleges are more likely to be interested in working for you – and in considering employment with you later.

4. The same care and attention to detail used in hiring regular employees. Look for interns who fit with your corporate culture and are truly motivated to learn.

5. Development of a meaningful assignment. Ensure that the intern is given challenging projects, not trivial work. Students are looking for hands-on experience where they can use and test the knowledge gained in the classroom. The more outstanding the experience, the more your organization will benefit, both now and after the student completes college, when s/he’s weighing offers of employment.

6. Assignment of a mentor. Interns need a mentor who is regularly available to answer questions about projects and company policies and procedures.

7. Assessment and revision. At the end of the internship, ask the intern to make a presentation to management on the value of the internship and areas that could be improved. Use this information to improve future internships.

© HR Works, Inc.

HR Works, Inc., headquartered at 200 WillowBrook Office Park in Fairport (Rochester), New York, with an office in East Syracuse, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.