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What Makes an Internship a Success? 4 Things Employers Should Know

By September 21, 2011January 18th, 2024Recruitment

Internships seem to be a perennial “hot topic,” resurfacing every fall in conjunction with “back-to-school” time. Prompted by growing youth unemployment in Canada and increasing controversy about unpaid internships around the globe, the topic was featured on a recent episode of CBC Radio’s “The Sunday Edition” with Michael Enright.

Click here to listen to the program

Click here to go directly to the “4 Keys to a Successful Internship”

The CBC brought together four individuals to discuss the issue with Michael which featured past interns whose experiences included paid or unpaid internships (or in the case of some “serial interns,” both!), as well as individuals who hire interns and/or work with employers.

All participants could agree on the benefits – the opportunity for one to “try on a career”, gain coaching and mentorship, and broaden his/her professional network. But there were passionate differences on some issues, such as whether internships should be paid or unpaid, and whether (in either case) internships were beneficial or exploitative.

Whether an individual should take a paid internship or an unpaid internship is really a personal decision. They must consider what they hope to gain from an internship as well as whether they have financial support available to them while they work without compensation. Many view it as an investment into their professional development.

However from an employer perspective, there are some definite, tangible advantages to choosing a paid intern over an unpaid intern (last year we blogged about this – click here to read the post).

The CBC Radio discussion was somewhat limited to the paid vs. unpaid debate, overlooking the key success factors that distinguish successful internships from those that give employers a “bad rap.”

Unfortunately, too often in discussions about internships, employer perspectives are overlooked, and employers are depicted as “the bad guys.” However the employers we work with are committed to a tried-and-tested paid internship model and are keen to hire diverse, pre-screened, qualified talent when the model offers low risk and high returns. The rewards are then passed on to the interns who are compensated with a monthly stipend, feedback and mentorship from experienced coaches, and a wealth of learning and experience.

When done right, the positive vibes come full circle, and internships can provide a win-win outcome for all. We’ve been doing this a long time. Since our inception in 1996 we’ve launched over 10,600 careers and have worked with thousands of top employers, and we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work. We’d like to share some best practices.

4 Keys to a Successful Internship

  1. Structure – An internship should be clearly defined to ensure that both the employer and the intern know what to expect, as well as what is expected of them. Our internships have defined terms, stipends and “building blocks,” which include an assigned “coach” for the intern and built-in performance reviews to ensure he/she receives adequate feedback. In addition to structure, a third-party organization can also provide support to the employer. Our knowledgeable Client Relations Managers (CRMs) provide guidance and expertise on HR and diversity topics including Gen Y and cross-generational workplace issues; AODA and accommodation; training and integrating immigrants and much more.
  2. Meaningful Internship Roles – We encourage employers to carve out challenging and engaging roles that allow interns to contribute to the advancement of their host organizations. Sometimes these roles arise from vacancies such as maternity-leave or turnover. Internships can also be project-based or a response to an increase in business activity and workload. Other employers use Internships as a gateway or “proving ground” for full-time permanent positions. Whatever the rationale behind it, an internship is most successful when it is part of an organization’s talent strategy and business goals.
  3. Compensation – The debate continues on paid vs. unpaid, but the fact remains that many people do feel that unpaid labour is exploitative. In general, workers feel more valued when they are being rewarded for their work. They are also more likely to identify with and feel part of the rest of your team if they are compensated just like everyone else. Unpaid work carries a lot of stigma with it that can weigh on the morale of your unpaid worker. Paid internships are better set up for success.
  4. A Supportive Work Environment – Over the years, Career Edge Organization has been “choosey” about which employers we work with, because we are well aware that one of the ingredients for a successful internship is a supportive work environment. An employer has to ensure that they have the workplace culture and resources to ensure a good fit between the organization and the intern. Education is part of the process and if, for example, a recent grad is going to thrive in your workplace, the employers and team need to “lose the Gen Y stereotypes” first.