How to structure an internship program that works for students and a company

Remember, today’s intern will very likely be tomorrow’s employee. Investing in a positive work environment will pay dividends for years to come.

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For many young people starting out, internships are a tried and true gateway into a career. One study notes that 59% of internships lead to job offers. Students have the opportunity to participate in the workforce, discover their aptitude and interest in various professions, build social capital, and perhaps match with their future employer. Companies, in turn, have the opportunity to infuse new perspectives and enthusiasm into their teams while seeing the workplace through fresh eyes. At First Workings, our mission is to address the internship access gap in New York City.

We set a high bar for success and have overwhelmingly watched students and companies clear that bar. The First Workings interns, who typically come through NYC charter and public schools in traditionally underserved and underrepresented communities, work with prestigious companies like Morgan Stanley, NASDAQ, Mount Sinai Hospital, White & Case, Bandier, and many others.


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As we enter our fifth summer internship period, here are some principles that have helped our students and companies meet and exceed their internship goals.

Widen your talent pool

Intern programs are one of your company’s strongest recruiting tools. We’ve found that many young people land internships by tapping into the network of people they know, also known as their “social capital.” Unfortunately, this means that companies can miss out on an enormous population of well-qualified and passionate interns.

Be intentional in your recruitment efforts. Seek out diverse student groups on college campuses. Find ways to recruit from and partner with institutions or community-based organizations that serve underrepresented populations in your city.

By creating an inclusive internship structure, companies can broaden the pool of talent available to them, especially among first-generation college students and students of color. With a more diverse talent pool comes more diverse ideas and solutions.

Look at the program from your interns’ perspectives

Consider the structure of your internship experience. Would interns benefit from deep-diving into a specific aspect of the job or rotating between different departments? Think back to what you would have appreciated when you first entered your industry or company.

You should also keep in mind the age of the interns you work with. High school interns require different kinds of training programs and support systems than college interns. While college students are more likely to have had previous internships, this may be a high school student’s first experience in a professional setting.

The key here is showing your interns that you value their efforts and insights, and giving them the opportunity to rise to the occasion. It’s really inspiring to see what a young person can accomplish when given the resources, support, and encouragement they need.

Get to know your interns

Whether you’re welcoming one or 100 interns at a time, find ways to personalize the experience.

Something as simple as sending a “getting to know you” questionnaire to your incoming interns before their first day can capture valuable insights for their future supervisors. Ask about their experiences coming into the internship. What do they hope to get out of their time at the company? What are their interests outside of work?

To maximize the experience for both parties, strategically pair interns to supervisors and mentors who reflect their professional and personal interests. Help make the experience more personal by taking them out to lunch on the first day, or even finding 15 minutes to share their own background and make an authentic connection with the intern.

Allow interns to get involved in company work product

If interns are only responsible for picking up coffee and making copies, you’re setting them up for failure, not to mention damaging their idea of the workplace. Whether you work in a corporate or creative setting, there’s always room for innovative new ideas. What better place to source these new ideas than from the next generation of the workforce?

In addition to assisting their teams on day-to-day projects, allow your interns to get more intimately involved with non-critical, but important, projects. Tell them why their contribution matters. Make sure they understand how their contributions fit into the larger company mission. Some examples of ways to do this are incorporating them into brainstorm sessions, assigning them research tasks, having them help prepare briefs or presentations, or inviting them to sit in on important meetings so they can meet executives or clients.

If that’s not possible, create stimulated assignments modeled on a real-life project. Give them the opportunity to present their work to senior level executives at the end of their internship.

Encourage ongoing feedback

Don’t save feedback for the exit interview. Communicate with your interns periodically. Let them know what they’re doing well and what they need to work on based on the goals you set at the beginning of the internship. This gives them the chance to actively learn and produce their best possible work, which benefits both parties.

Encourage your interns to keep a journal. They should jot down questions as they come up. Tracking daily and long-term projects will come in handy during check-in and more formal evaluations.

One of the managers we work with asks his interns to take note of all of the unfamiliar terms that they come across. At the end of the day, they meet and the supervisor explains each term. Aside from being a particularly useful exercise for internships in more nuanced industries like law and finance, it also helps strengthen the relationship between the intern and their managers.

Offer guidance based on your interns’ needs

Internships are always more successful when the intern is prepared for what’s ahead. Are there nonprofits or school-based programs that address this issue with whom you can connect?

Since 2014, we have placed over 200 teens in highly sought-after internships. Before their first day, we meet with each of our teens several times to address interview skills, inter-office etiquette, professional emails, good social media habits, handshake, etc. We provide them with MetroCards, lunch stipends, and work-appropriate clothes, if needed, to negate some of the financial barriers that might prevent them from having a successful experience. We even bring in improvisational actors to walk our students through how to handle tricky situations at work appropriately.

Your summer interns will have varying levels of experience. Offer guidance to those who do not have access to the level of preparation First Workings provides. Managing interns may be time-consuming, but it’s time well spent.

Remember, today’s intern will very likely be tomorrow’s employee. Investing in a positive work environment and fostering strong and supportive relationships will not only feel personally rewarding but will also pay dividends for years to come.

Chloe Mullarkey is the founding Executive Director of First Workings, a nonprofit organization helping NYC’s students from underserved and underrepresented communities build social capital. First Workings provides tailored training, placement in competitive internships, and comprehensive support to help students foster professional relationships and achieve their full potential academically and professionally. Prior to First Workings, Ms. Mullarkey served as a College Advisor at a high school in the Bronx with the NYU College Advising Corps. A first-generation college student herself, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Applied Psychology from NYU Steinhardt and a Master of Public Health (MPH) from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.


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