July 2019 | Commentary | Smart Moves: Supply Chain Careers & Education Advice

How to Recruit and Retain the Best Interns

Tags: Careers, Supply Chain

If you hire summer interns, you've already decided where to source students. But what about the decisions around post-intern hiring?

Dr. Zachary Williams, Associate Professor of Marketing and ISM Program Director, Western Michigan University, 269-387-6166

I recently spoke with supply-side executives from a Fortune 150 firm about a directed change in their internship program. The traditional operational internship (indexing and cataloging) shifted to a strategic, project-based internship that included conducting research, establishing a negotiation strategy for large asset expenditures, and developing contingency plans for adverse events.

The results of this move were clearly reflected in the interns' excitement, which they carry with them as they return to their respective campuses.

When considering your internship program, you have to decide what you want from the program. Is it brand enhancement? Recruiting future students? Return on investment? There's no right or wrong answer. What is relevant is the discussion about the internship program's strategy.

Hiring and Continuing Engagement

The clock continues to move up when it comes to recruiting. Students are shocked when we start talking upcoming summer internships during the first week of the fall semester. I have experienced instances when firms hire out well in advance, up to 18 months ahead of time.

On the positive side, advanced recruiting cycles give students plenty of time to arrange for housing, plan courses and graduation, or take specific courses to prepare for the experience.

With advanced hiring, one issue that comes up often is a "dark period" or "freakout zone"—the period between accepting an internship and actually starting. This is particularly critical in advanced cycles. Students get nervous when they do not hear from the employer. They want to know what location they will be in, what their specific role will be, who their supervisor is, and more. In some cases, students just want to know if they still have the internship because they have not had contact with the employer in so long.

One easy fix is creating online communities for all incoming interns and current employees to share information. A small firm that I work with does some novel things to help close the gap. They send nice gifts after a student accepts an offer. They also have a number of employees reach out via email, phone, and text to make sure students have their questions answered. And if any current employees are traveling through the area, they stop and grab lunch or dinner with the intern. Simple, but highly effective.

We see a lot of interesting activities to keep interns engaged post-internship. Some firms allow the intern to work remotely. Students typically enjoy the extra money and the continued engagement with the firm. This option, however, is not for every student nor for every firm. Security and maturity are key for this type of arrangement to work.

Avoid Re-enlistment Pressure

I would caution firms that pressure interns to "re-enlist" for another experience (internship or full-time) prior to going back to school. This can lead to job reneging. As academics, we are actively working to educate students on the negatives associated with the practice.

Alternatively, one firm with an outstanding internship program and retention rate offers students a future position at the end of the summer and tells them to go to campus, have fun, and recruit with any firm they want. They give them no deadlines and simply say, "we want you back; just make sure you want to come back."

This approach does challenge the forecasting piece, but I assure you the retention rate for new hires and returning interns is high.