How to Develop All-Star Interns to Bridge Your Skills Gap

In a recent survey, more than half of the employers reported that they can’t find qualified candidates for their open positions, according to CareerBuilder.

And, of those employers, 35 percent said the challenge stemmed from having job requirements that were above entry-level and increasingly complex.

Why not use an internship program to help bridge the skills gap?

Much like a minor league sports team, internship programs allow you to develop a pipeline of bright, qualified candidates, and teach them hard-to-find skills. Upon their graduation, your interns will be ready to star on your team of the future.

Follow these steps to avoid the pitfalls, develop talent and stay a step ahead of your competition.

1. Make it a mutually beneficial relationship

Too often, interns act as office assistants, assigned administrative tasks unrelated to their fields of study. For example, more time is dedicated to organizing closets or cleaning the office microwave than on any real-world job responsibilities.

While even the worst internships give interns something to put on their resumes, they probably won’t look back on bad experiences after graduation and say, “Wow, I’d love to work for that company.”

The best internship programs create mutually beneficial relationships. It should help your company achieve its goals while providing your interns with realistic job experiences. The symbiotic nature of the relationship helps ensure your interns feel valued and develop job-related skills. As a result, it can increase the likelihood of their long-term success with your company.

2. Have a job description

Just like any other professional position, an internship should begin with a job description. This way you ensure the internship is mutually beneficial. It also validates that there is enough work available to warrant the position.

Work should be meaningful, so design the job to both challenge and stimulate your intern. Decide what projects will be assigned and determine the expected scope and duration of each one. Include a mixture of complex and less challenging tasks.

Clearly, complex jobs that require a great deal of training might be too much responsibility for interns. But, how can they learn and contribute within your organization? Assume interns have some foundation for the job, just not enough to make an immediate impact.

For instance, has your intern helped promote his band on Twitter? Could your business use his experience to help put together a promotional campaign for a new product? There are likely a number of ways to put your interns’ skills to work.

If you’re coming up short on a list of tasks, consider developing a rotation schedule where your interns work in different positions throughout your company. For instance, say you bring on an intern for an accounts receivables role. While you’d want to get her familiar with all facets of accounting, you could also expose her to other areas, like sales or marketing.

Not only will this allow your interns to see your company’s competing priorities, but it will also help them get more familiar with how they can help your company succeed. Just be sure you appoint someone who will keep the rotation on schedule. Have a mentor who periodically meets with each intern to ensure your company’s expectations are met.

And, before you start recruiting, share your job description and proposed rotation schedule with leaders and key stakeholders within your business. Be sure to explain your mission and why it’s important to develop talent for your company’s future.

Explain how your program may positively impact future staffing initiatives. Also, be sure to outline the potential costs and provide a cost-benefit analysis. This will help you get the necessary buy-in before any interns come onboard.

3. Offer a paid position

Before hiring, establish what your company is able to pay your interns. And, determine what benefits, if any, you can offer.

As a best practice, you should pay your interns, even if it’s just minimum wage. Your interns will feel more accountable to meeting their responsibilities. It also helps to build the foundation for a better employer/employee relationship.

While not recommended, if you decide you want to offer an unpaid position, be sure to do the necessary research beforehand so you aren’t violating any city or state wage laws.

4. Recruit through school internship programs

Often, companies are inclined to hire from employee referrals. For instance, interns are referred by parents who already work within the company. While this can be effective, it’s important to think beyond this method.

Your candidates’ interest areas don’t have to be an exact match to your company. But ideally, you want to hire someone with a particular interest in your company’s line of work.

When you reach out to colleges and high schools to find interns, look for individuals who show a specific interest in your field. These candidates will be more attuned to your mission and better equipped to help you reach your goals.

However, to recruit from these programs, you must be willing to work with students to meet the specific criteria outlined by their schools.

For example, say you need engineering interns. You would contact your local university’s school of engineering and ask for their internship program guidelines. In many cases, if your program is properly aligned with these guidelines, students can get class credits for their internship with your company. This can make your program much more appealing to qualified interns. Develop relationships with university leaders and school administrators as you go to set your program up for success.

Upon hiring, you should outline how your interns will fulfill their school credits, but then leave it up to them to meet the requirements.

5. Agree to a length of an internship

It’s always a good idea to establish, upfront, how long an internship will last.

An internship does not necessarily have to be a full three months of summer or an entire semester. For example, if you have a project that will last 30 days, make the internship 30 days.

Be conservative in your estimate. While you can always extend the length of an internship, it may affect the employee experience if you cut it off before the agreed time.

Plus, you must take into consideration that many interns will be working over their summer or holiday break. You simply can’t assume that they want to commit their entire break to your organization – allow time for vacation or other activities, if needed. (Remember, you’re trying to build a mutually beneficial relationship.)

6. Establish internship goals and benchmarks

When you create two, concurrent goals associated with the company and the individual, you set up the groundwork for a successful internship.

Begin by creating one goal related to your company. For instance, what contributions should your interns make to the company? You want to make sure they aren’t just fulfilling a job – they should be contributing to a certain mission for your organization.

Then, develop a second goal related to the individual. This should clearly define what interns should expect to learn over the course of the internship. If they are receiving class credits, their work at your company should align with their school’s objectives.

Also, be sure to plan out benchmarks your interns should work to achieve. What should they know by the end of their first quarter with your company, for example?

With these goals and benchmarks in place, your company should get the work output needed, while your interns receive a realistic job preview.

7. Treat your intern as an intern

Provide an onboarding just like you would all other employees. But, also recognize that your interns may not possess all the skills required in the position.

For example, more accustomed to writing text messages and tweets, some interns might be less familiar with how to professionally communicate through email. While they can certainly learn and adapt, it’s essential that you provide guidance on your expectations upfront.

To save time, consider developing a short handbook for your interns, specifically outlining how they’re expected to operate within the office. Provide your expectations regarding how to engage in email, meetings and any other situations. These topics may be foreign to interns who haven’t worked in an office environment previously. So, don’t take anything for granted.

From there, gauge their learning capacity and act accordingly. Gradually bring them up to speed. While you shouldn’t shy away from constructive criticism, make sure any feedback is delivered in a productive fashion.

8. Reward a job well done

Ideally, your interns will learn valuable information that can be built upon during their career – and hopefully that career will be with your business.

If your interns succeed in their positions, let them know what their opportunities are moving forward with your company. For example, could they return for another internship? Is there a permanent position you could offer upon graduation?

If a job offer isn’t in the cards, offer to write a letter of recommendation or LinkedIn review to show your appreciation for their great work.

Taking the good with the bad

The skills gap is a serious problem in the job market today. Businesses lose $14,000 on average for every job that stays vacant for three months or longer, according to a Careerbuilder survey.

Fortunately, when you take time to develop a stellar intern program, you have the opportunity to build relationships with your talent of the future while simultaneously teaching hard-to-find skills. Upon graduation of your interns, you’ll have a trained team ready to fill your junior-level positions. You’ll be ahead of your competition with a plan to overcome the skills gap in the current job market.

Unfortunately, developing an internship program does require extensive planning and an investment of resources. And, doesn’t offer a quick ROI either. But the return on investment from your internship comes when your interns are better trained to take on more responsibility in future positions.

Want to learn more ways to build a strong workforce?

Download Talent Acquisition: 13 Secrets to Recruiting and Retaining Top Talent to get more insight on how to develop your recruiting strategy.